The Great Escape
A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 25 February 1996
This sermon began as a note scribbled on an index card. "AA founded June 10, 1935. Sermon on AA in June, 1995 for 60th anniversary." Delivering a sermon about alcoholism seemed like a good idea. I'd talk about my own struggle with alcohol as a young man. But when June came Alcoholics Anonymous didn't fit into the sermon I delivered the Sunday the Chicago Children's Choir visited. I put it off. I'm good at that. It still seemed like a good idea in the fall when I pulled out the material which I'd collected on alcoholism, AA and Al-Anon. But by then I had realized the sermon would really be about the myriad ways we use to escape life's problems.
As today grew nearer, so did my discomfort. When the staff met on Tuesday morning, I lamented my choice of topics. Rose, our Music Director, laughed. Sue Pound said, "I don't want to miss this one." And Donna just said, "Read the letter I put on your desk." Later I slipped the letter and pamphlet out of its envelope. The letterhead said, "New Realities Eating Disorders Recovery Centre." I opened the pamphlet and read "Do You: Think about food and weight constantly. Feel frustrated with dieting. Eat in response to anger, loneliness, anxiety, stress, etc. Feel out of control with food. Feel guilt and remorse when you overeat. Eat when you are not hungry. Feel unworthy because your body isn't the right shape or weight...." They had my number. The truth is that alcohol is no longer a problem for me; neither is television since we disposed of it, but food: that's another matter.
I didn't want to write this sermon but I couldn't put it off any longer, either. To deal with this topic I'd have to drop all pretence and face the truth. I'd have to look at my patterns of avoidance and then give them up or feel like a hypocrite. That is what makes preaching so difficult, not the writing or the speaking, but rather the living out my own ideals about what it means to live a full and good life, while knowing I will fall short.
Speaking of falling. My Dad phoned yesterday and told me that my eleven-month-old niece, Michelle, is walking. When I recalled how exciting it was when Charlotte and Elliot took their first steps, Dad remembered my first effort. He said I walked earlier than my three siblings, but after I had a bad fall I didn't try again for months.
That's the way life is: one challenge after another. As M. Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Travelled:
What makes life difficult is that the process of confronting and solving problems is a painful one. Problems... evoke in us frustration or grief or sadness or loneliness or guilt or regret or anger or fear or anxiety or anguish or despair. These are uncomfortable feelings...Indeed, it is because of the pain that events... engender in us that we call them problems [and] fearing the pain involved, almost all of us attempt to avoid problems. [p.16]
That was true for me. It didn't take long to discover that the world was a painful place, and as I grew older I found more ways to avoid the problems that confronted me. I'd hide in the basement or the bathroom or under the bed so my folks couldn't send me out to play. My standing among the guys on the block was clear. They made sure I knew where I stood in the pecking - I was younger than everyone except my brother, Philip. Rather than be humiliated - I was often the last one chosen when we picked teams - I would dash down the alley to my friend Nipper's and sit in his darkened bedroom reading the stacks of comics that filled his closet.
When Philip was angry with me - I was adept at slyly teasing him - I'd run, lock myself in the bathroom, and while he flailed at the door screaming, "I'm going to kill you," I'd browse through the Sears catalogue until he exhausted himself. I spent a lot of time hiding from Philip, the gang and life. Hurt feelings were just a "put down" away and inevitably I would slip off, creep into the house, sneak upstairs and slide into the comforting darkness of Dad's closet. There, next to the 8mm film splicer and beneath his tuxedo, I would sit holding my knees to my chest while repeating to myself, "Everybody hates me, nobody likes me, everybody hates me, nobody likes me..." over and over - a melancholy mantra.
That's the way I dealt with problems - flee from them. Retreat into closets and comic books, and later into drink and drugs, depression and procrastination; flee across the sea and into fantasy. Best to avoid life's hard edge and sink into the numbing embrace of "a life which belongs to death."
Drinking had not been a part of my life until I went away to college. In Wisconsin you could drink at the age of eighteen, and I did. I would binge drink. The object, I told myself, was to loosen up, to have a good time, to forget the self-consciousness which paralyzed me whenever I was around a woman I liked.
It's just as Gretchen Thompson describes in Slow Miracles:
There are better ways. Better than running. Drinking. The first shot is the only evil-seeming one, and the minute it hits, sliding down the gullet like ice on fire, the minute it hits, it numbs the guilt like a kind of Novocain.
The next round of shots numbs the self-hatred...
The next round of shots facilitates conversation, as they say. Isn't that funny, to finally find words, after all these years...
The next round numbs the memory. Getting there, getting there.
But the final round. The final round. Yes. Numbs all consciousness. The final round, as good as death, as deep as death, as blind and deaf and dumb as death.... Death for the uncourageous, the chicken-hearted, those too afraid to really do it..." [pp 53-54]
I got so sick a few times that I wanted to die, and I stopped getting inebriated, but that was exactly when drinking became even more insidious. I was living in Austria and working as the assistant manager of a small American junior college. I did all the shopping, so the merchants knew me and often with my purchases they gave me a bottle of alcohol. I had a dozen bottles on the floor of my closet - Campari, Southern Comfort, Vermouth, Gin. Half way through the year the money which the school's founder sent from the States, slowed to a trickle. The manager of the school, a friend I'd known since I was thirteen, became withdrawn and demanding. We had barely enough for basic expenses and nothing for salary. My relationship with my boss and long-time friend grew tense and distant. I felt angry and betrayed as conversation except when necessary ceased. I started drinking after breakfast. I came up for a shot before staff meetings. I drank before dinner and after, but never enough to get drunk, just enough to cut the edge, to numb myself, to avoid the pain. But I was lucky. One day I thought, "Mark, you're an alcoholic," and it scared me so much that I stopped and didn't drink again for years.
A.A. portrays alcohol itself as the problem, but I'm inclined to think that the deeper problem is drinking as a means of escape. I'm an escape artist, for while I forsook alcohol there were other tricks that helped me to momentarily deaden the pain - television, food, drugs, depression, sleep, sexual fantasies, work piled upon work, reading, over-intellectualizing, procrastination, excessive niceness that helps me avoid conflict and rejection - anything that puts my problems off to another day, anything that helps me to avoid the pain which is part of being alive, anything that keeps me from being in this moment. Perhaps you're an escape artist, too. How do you do it: romance, coffee, cigarettes, gambling, aggressiveness that masks your vulnerability, compulsive helpfulness that hides your lack of self-esteem, a need to control which is really an anxiety-fed lack of faith in others; or perhaps you are so defended you're not even aware of your feelings.
Problems, pain and suffering are intrinsic to life; to avoid them is to avoid life itself; it is to be less than whole and worse, avoiding suffering will leave you emotionally crippled and spiritually stunted. As Peck writes: "This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness." [p.17] Or as Carl Jung succinctly puts it: "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering."
Another who has come to this conclusion is journalist Tony Schwarz. Writing in the conclusion of What Really Matters: Searching For Wisdom In America he says:
I continue to explore painful issues and to challenge my habitual behaviours. I still often feel that I'm swimming up stream - not just against my own resistance but against the culture's, too. Looking deep within challenges people to engage their own feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction, and despair. Most people instinctively avoid such pain at any cost, and culture provides us with endless ways to anaesthetize ourselves - with everything from alcohol and drugs to food, trivial chit-chat, obsessive work, and fame. It is easy to get seduced and side-tracked. [p.425]
We don't want to embrace the challenge of looking deep and engaging the pain we have long held in abeyance. That is why I was reluctant to preach this sermon, and I can't imagine that you are less reluctant to hear this challenge. This is not an invitation to "feel good" religion or an over-intellectualized, feelingless faith, but rather to wholeness and healing.
Last Sunday during our Congregational Budget meeting Jack McFadden told those present why this religious community is important for him. He said that Toronto First "helped heal his religious wound." I knew that part of that healing had begun early in his involvement at First when he'd participated in a program we offer that explores one's religious past. It is called the "Haunting Church." For indeed our early experiences always haunt our todays. We are all wounded, and those wounds will remain unhealed until we stop fleeing from the pain.
AA's great discovery was that "meeting and talking and helping other alcoholics together, we are somehow able to stay sober and to lose the compulsion to drink..." It is possible in the context of a community to live with the pain and to use it to grow. This is exactly the point that Henri Nowen, the Catholic priest, makes in the book The Wounded Healer:
A Christian Community is... a healing community not because wounds are cured and pains are alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for new vision. Mutual confession then becomes a mutual deepening of hope, and sharing weakness becomes a reminder to one and all of the coming strength. [pp 94 -96]
It is community that makes it possible to face the pain we dread. Life is a challenge that often leaves us wounded, aching and alone. But if we can be present to one another in the pain, we will heal; grow and become whole. I have seen it happen right here in this religious community over and over again for those, like Jack, who have been willing to look at and share their woundedness with others.
There is a meditation by Kathy Hurt Fuson that I keep returning to because it gives me strength and reminds me why I find doing ministry a blessing, even when I fall short:
Life has not been gentle with me. Battered and tossed about, wounded deeply and often, My spirit bears marks of conflict, pain, death. I wear wounds that will not heal. But life, so ungentle told me a secret: My unhealed wounds, source of agony and shame for me, May be a source of healing for others. I can share with them my darkness and they see light; I can speak to them of bitterness and they taste the sweet; I can show them my wounds and theirs are healed. Life has not been gentle with me. But it brought beauty with its blows; Though wounded past all healing, because wounded past all healing, I can heal others And so be made whole.
That is why I minister, and that is why "we come together, sometimes in fear, sometimes in trust, sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy, but always in hope and faith that we can help and strengthen each other in our quest for healing."