Knowing and Doing

Each week I spend an hour at the county jail, and another hour each with men and women living in a 1-year addiction recovery program at the Santa Barbara Rescue Mission.  I have learned much in my four years or so of interacting with people in these locations, with the most important being that I don’t know nearly enough.  This is balanced with the other most important thing I’ve learned, which is that I know enough.

Trying to tease out the components of addiction and how they manifest themselves so powerfully in people through drugs or alcohol is a veritable Gordian Knot.  But I’m becoming more and more convinced of something that has gradually been dawning on me this year.  Our systems-based thinking, our assumption that everything is an equation which can be neatly solved once we know what sort of equation to use, is woefully inadequate for the world and the universe.

We’re convinced that everything should be predictable by models, that given the proper input variables the outcome is more or less assured.  This was vividly on display locally over the past eight months as the build up towards an epic rainy season courtesy of a record-breaking El Nino pattern gave way to massive disappointment (at least as of now – we’re theoretically getting rain tomorrow!).  Now, I’m not saying that there can be no reliable, identifiable examples of cause and effect.  Obviously, that’s insane thinking.  But what I am saying is that we assume too much and too often that equations and systems should give us a predetermined outcome.  More dangerous still, we assume that once we think we’ve identified the equation and the variables, we can control the outcome.  This outcome, in term, should be broadly repeatable.

But this presumes that creation is basically an isolated system which functions only by given, set rules.  Everything is a mathematical equation to be solved.  Which is seems like a very finite way to view and experience and approach the world, in addition to being one with some serious flaws and drawbacks.  With a systems model of approaching people and their problems, the solution to any problem has to do mostly with education.  If we can teach people differently or better, then the problems go away.

The problem with this approach is that it assumes people act logically and rationally all the time, when it’s pretty clear they don’t.  It assumes that if we know the right thing to do, we’ll do it.  Period.  But it seems pretty clear that while this is certainly how many people live portions of their lives, it isn’t how they live all of their lives.  People are amazingly good at ignoring good information and doing things that they know are not helpful, either in the long run or the short run.  Someone could make an argument to convince me that, as a whole, we are more educated than any other generations in history.  Yet we still do stupid stuff.

The other problem with an equation-style approach to reality is that there is no room for anything other than equations, because if there’s anything other than equations, you can’t trust your equations will work.  There’s wiggle-room and unpredictability at least at some level.

All of that in mind to share this article on addiction recovery.  The article highlights the ongoing divide between those who see in Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous (AA/NA) and the Twelve-Step program a help for those in addiction, and those who oppose these groups and philosophies as being unscientific.  This divide is not new, but it’s interesting to read about it playing out in current circles of thought.

Those against these programs essentially see them as unscientific and as not helpful enough (5-8% success rate after one year), but offer little as alternatives beyond positive thinking and the hope that education and clarification can provide the incentive for change.  Additionally, critics are often displeased with the religious foundations of the programs and the insistence on a higher power of some sort along with an acknowledgement of our own inability to change ourselves.  They see these as self-defeating ideas, preferring to emphasize the capacity for change coming from within ourselves (via encouragement, education, clarity, etc.).

It sounds nice, but it has no more of a track record than the AA/NA route it criticizes.  Perhaps an even worse track record, or else AA/NA would never have come about.  It may be offensive to recognize that you are powerless, but that is exactly what has resounded with addicts for decades.  People who have succeeded at maintaining healthy lives via AA/NA would undoubtedly scoff at the folks  in this article who dislike the idea of cold turkey, complete abstinence from their addiction of choice.  If your life is an out of control train wreck, perhaps acknowledging that you aren’t the best conductor for your train isn’t an unreasonable start.  Unpleasant, undoubtedly.  But helpful?  At least from my vantage on the outside looking in, definitely.

Then again, for the Christian, this shouldn’t be a surprise.  For the person acknowledging dependence not just on an arbitrary higher power but on the creator of the universe, this is the appropriate posture.  Claiming to be in control of one’s life seems a very pleasant illusion for someone that believes they really are in control, who isn’t dealing with very real problems that don’t simply disappear via positive thinking.

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