August 5, 2009
Conserve Your Liberality
It’s easy to make fun of twelve-step groups, given their curious jargon and the fact that there are so many different varieties of them filling church basements across the country with cigarette smoke and pamphlets. In case you didn’t know, the movement has gone far beyond offering hope to alcoholics and drug users, expanding to fill the empty space in a wide assortment of modern hearts and heads. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are deep resemblances between the moral path traced in the Steps and Ignatian spirituality — a fact that impressed the Jesuit Rev. Edward Dowling, whom Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W. befriended in 1940. Given Bill W.’s ignorance of the existence of St. Ignatius, Father Dowling chalked up the similarities to Providence and threw his support behind the fledgling group. Countless lives and souls have been saved by AA and related organizations.
Which gives me a nifty idea. Living close to the border of Massachusetts — our local streets are clogged with hemp-wearing tax refugees driving Volvos lacking turn signals — I’ve thought of founding Kennedys Anonymous, whose members will acknowledge:
Step 1. That we are powerless over voting for Kennedys, and that our state has become unmanageable.
Step 2. That a Higher Power than ourselves can restore us to sanity.
Step 3. That we must make a decision to turn our lives and our state over to that Higher Power, as we understand Him.
And so on. If a spiritual path can rescue Boston Irishmen from the Democrats, it deserves a second look.
The Twelve Steps come to mind this week because I’m examining Liberality, the virtue opposed to Greed. If Greed is a disordered hunger for the good things God created, then its opposite is equally bad. Scorning the wise use of wealth and wasting your substance in riotous spending is every bit as evil as covetously hoarding stuff. Dante damned the Prodigal right alongside the Greedy, and set them rolling stones like Sisyphus in opposite directions, with both sides slamming into each other and vociferously heckling. If this sounds like modern politics, that’s not exactly an accident. In the American sector of hell, someday a venturesome Virgil will trip over Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, forever chewing each other’s skulls — on the way to catching a round in the sempiternal sumo match pitting Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore.
The Twelve Steps make the distinction between extending kindness to an addict — let’s say, your cousin who volunteered in Caroline Kennedy’s truncated campaign for U.S. Senate — and “enabling” him in ways that lubricate his slide into self-destruction. True Liberality means treating an addicted person charitably — avoiding sarcasm and gossip — but also as an adult who has a behavioral disease. You respect his independence and (this is the kicker) do not try to step in and control his disordered behavior. That’s between him and God, and when you insert yourself, you’re playing God. Or, in Twelve-Step parlance, “trying to become his Higher Power.” Instead, be humble enough to pray for the person — and not to tell him that you’re doing it. Sure, take away his car keys when he isn’t fit to drive, but don’t become his volunteer, unpaid chauffeur.
Tough love is a very hard balance to tread, as family members of addicts can testify. Indeed, the temptation to “enable” is such a powerful one that it’s actually addictive. It may sound funny to some, but there are Twelve-Step groups devoted not just to addicts but to their family members. And for very good reason: Living constantly in the presence of someone enslaved by behavior that’s self- (and other-) destructive is morally grueling. It provokes an overpowering anxiety and saps your trust in God. You may start out as Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet and listening to Him, but a few years of living alongside a drinker, druggie, or gambler and you’re likely to turn into a high-octane, power-hungry caricature of Martha — rushing about cleaning up people’s messes, wiping the noses of adults and all but changing their diapers, while feeling like a genuine victim soul. You’ll “offer up” your suffering — all caused, of course, by the addict — and make sure that he knows how well you’re doing your Job. You’ll learn along the way a wide array of domineering and manipulative behaviors that help you survive the addict’s presence. And in good fallen-natural fashion, you’ll start using them on everyone you meet.
Or seeking out other damaged folks whom you can “fix.” I know someone who grew up the son of a full-on compulsive gambler. She started by nibbling away at her husband’s blue-collar salary with simple games of bingo. But the Diocese of Brooklyn in the good old 1970s — when it never turned down an annulment — had its sights set on higher things. Like high-stakes poker games. Instead of nickel and dime, the games would be “dollar and two,” watched over by local cops named Pat and Brendan, frequented by guys in pointy, roach-killer shoes with names that rhymed with RICO. They’d play against little old ladies with teased-up, Marge Simpson hair and serious gambling problems. Some priests would make change for players, playfully “blessing the money for luck.” One pastor even scheduled games on Friday nights in Lent — and when a pious addict pointed out he was serving bologna sandwiches, the priest solemnly conferred on the assembly a special dispensation so they could eat them.
This housewife I have in mind would drop some $200-$300 per week, often borrowing extra money from slick-haired men who took repayment with . . . deadly seriousness. Her husband took to dealing cards to make back in tips what his wife was losing. When they weren’t at parish poker, they were fighting like feral cats over the family’s death-spiral finances — all of this while their son was applying to top-tier colleges. The fruits of these family dynamics were:
- To this day, the son can’t open bills or even deposit paychecks without a panic attack.
- Having listened to so much screaming about so many parish games, when he hears terms like “Precious Blood,” “St. Joseph,” or “St. Margaret Mary,” he doesn’t think of saints or sacred mysteries but of . . . poker.
- Over the years, he assembled a collection of parasitical “friends” who relied on him for make-work, short-term “loans,” or outright gifts to the tune of thousands of dollars.
- When he meets someone with a deep-seated problem or raging addiction, he actually gets excited, rolls up his sleeves, and gets to work. Pretty soon, he’s dragging the person to the Sacraments, giving him reading lists, calling her up for status reports, and generally acting like a third-rate substitute for God. He views such micromanagement of other full-grown adults as falling under various “works of mercy.”
- Did I mention he’s still not married?
This case may seem extreme, but it points out the distortions to which the virtue of generosity is subject. Next week I’ll go into a lot more depth about the real thing, rightly ordered.