By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
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Eight years ago, I led a memorial service for a young woman who I will never forget. She wasn’t a member of this congregation, in fact, I had never met her when her family reached out to me. But she had asked for a UU minister to lead her service. And, somehow, she picked me.
She wanted to meet me. She had a terminal illness and was in the hospital at that point, they didn’t know how long she would have. I went to see her, but she was asleep when I arrived. I did get to talk to her family a little bit about her. I liked her immediately.
She died soon after.
But her story did not. Not for me anyway. In her conservative Christian family, her lesbian identity had been a wrench in the works. She’d been different from the get-go. And for much of her life, while her family struggled with her sexual identity, she struggled with addiction. They’d lived estranged from each other for much of her adulthood.
But her diagnosis, the seriousness of it, the urgency of it, her family told me, was a wake-up call. For her, and for them.
She joined a 12-step group and got clean. She started eating healthy. She got physically fit. She was going to beat this thing. And she reached out to her siblings. After years of separation. Suddenly doors and windows were open that had been closed before. They connected. They laughed. They had fun together. I know this because they (joyfully) showed me pictures.
And then it ended. Her life did end. It still makes me sad now to think of it. They, or I, I don’t remember, described her last year as a victory lap. And it was a healing lap, a reconnecting lap, it was, from the perspective of an outsider looking in, beautiful.
And at her memorial service, the family played this song, Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.
You know this song. [sing a few notes]
It’s a familiar tune. But at this service, I felt like I was hearing it for the first time, especially this one line:
She tied you to her kitchen chair
And she broke your throne and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew a Hallelujah
Those lines are a reference to the Samson and Delilah story in the Bible – you know the one? Samson is a great leader, a powerful warrior, whose enemies want to take him down. Delilah, often portrayed as a seductress in the retelling, goads him into revealing the source of his strength – his long, flowing hair. It is his achilles heal, his kryptonite – if his hair is cut, his strength will dissolve. And that’s exactly how that story ends.
And while Cohen’s song references many things, to me, those lines, that story… I think I know why the family picked that song… it strikes me as just so much about addiction. About what it does to a person. About how it’s so seductive. How it renders you helpless. And about how even as your power and agency drain from your body, there you are still singing hallelujah’s for that thing – whatever it might be.
What human being hasn’t had that experience, with something?
With an attraction to some person who wasn’t good for you, with an attraction to a substance that wasn’t good for you, or just a temptation to take some action that you kind of knew even when you did it, would not be good for you.
Still, moth to a flame, you did it anyway.
When you do it more than once it can become a habit. If you keep doing it even when it’s hurting you or others but you can’t seem to stop, we call it an addiction.
There are all kinds of addictions. Classic addictions that we might think of first when someone says the word – alcohol, drugs, gambling. But they could also be to facebook, Netflix, watching the news nonstop.
Addiction to a big screen or a handheld one [lift up cellphone]
I have heard our collective inability to fight climate change called an addiction to oil. I suspect on some level we are all addicted to the capitalist claim of always more, always better. Ideologies can be addictive.
But they all share that common script, moth to a flame, a helplessness to resist, and the feeling of hallelujah, even as your power drains away.
And even while that experience may be pretty common, we don’t tend to talk about addiction all that much.
Well, it gets dramatized in movies or in shows, and maybe we joke about binge watching this or that, but for many of us, talking about what really gets us, gets hard.
Addictions are tricky. It’s like they take over a little part of the brain. And that part of the brain will tell you lies, to keep you from seeing what’s really happening. And that part of the brain likes to pretend it’s not there, that’s one of the lies it tells you, so then, there’s nothing to talk about. Which handily then prevents you from getting any help with it, whatever “it” might be.
It doesn’t help that our society has, historically, used shame as a way to “shape us up” when we’re doing something it considers “wrong.”
And it doesn’t help that, even when we are tied to a chair and being told lies to keep us there, our society often blames the person with the addiction, making them into a villain.
And, in spite of the liberating AA message that addiction is a disease, there is still this aura of morality around it that, for some reason, just hasn’t gone away.
So, addictions bring up shame, blame, and the specter of a moral failing.
It’s no wonder we don’t talk about it.
But because we don’t talk about it, what we also don’t typically hear about, is how hopeful they are.
I know, what??
But stay with me now.
I was at a workshop not long ago that a friend of mine was leading. Addiction, she said, is a way back home. To yourself.
Addiction…. is like a bright beacon waving at you, saying, look here, look here!
It’s a sign that there is something to pay attention to. Not just the addiction itself, but also to what is underneath it.
Because addiction, she went on to explain, is covering over this tender place, this aching spot in your soul, that is yearning for attention. Crying out for healing, pointing you back home. To a sense of wholeness you may have forgotten is possible, but that is still there.
It made me think of that young woman I talked about earlier. I don’t know exactly what that tender place was for her. Only that when she got help with the addiction, she began to heal. Not just her body, but her heart, her relationships. Arguably, she healed her whole darn family. And she (finally) began to reconnect with joy in her life.
The leader of the workshop shared her own experience. With caffeine actually. She noted that addictions aren’t always of the kind we normally think of they come in all shapes and sizes. So while caffeine isn’t a dangerous substance, for her, it had become a stand-in for what she really needed. As a mom of a small child, with a partner, volunteer commitments and a demanding job, she was busy. Often tired. Exhausted, really. The caffeine felt like it got her through, was like her secret weapon so she could do good, look good, be fine.
When what she really needed was some room to not be quite so fine all the time, needed room to feel her feeling, to let some things go, to give her own sweet soul some space, to restore, so she could reconnect with the joy in her life.
In general, she said, (and I love the way she put this) when we step away from whatever keeps us hooked, we get a chance to “renew our love affair with life.”
There’s a catch, of course. Which is that getting to the “much better” place often requires lifting the lid on that tender aching place first. Requires a letting go that brings up feelings which most of us would rather do just about anything than feel. And it requires dealing with that part of the brain that will to tell you the stand in for joy is good enough, that you deserve that thing you want, that there’s nothing better anyway, and other convincing reasons to look anywhere but there. It’s tricky stuff.
Which is why the addiction does, sometimes, win.
And may be why the famous psychologist Carl Jung once suggested only a spiritual solution is a solution for this.
A spiritual solution happens to be the foundation of 12-step groups, one of the first programs found to be effective, which has become a model for countless other programs. It’s a model that demands a lot of accountability, and offers a lot of support because, right, addictions can be sticky, wily and very hard.
And there’s this spiritual piece.
An OnBeing podcast about the 12-steps noted that Carl Jung also said that addictions are like a low-level search for God. Whatever substance you’re hooked on can feel like your superpower. Even as it can feel love, like intimacy, like your best friend in the whole world. But. You don’t actually get the real thing, you get a standin, fools gold, a false god, you might say. And you may get stuck.
I learned in that podcast that AA’s founder, Bill W, suggested building a spiritual relationship with something at least as intimate as the addiction itself. He called that something God. A God reshaped from the distant God of his own childhood, into a “Higher Power” so close as to care not only about what you do, but about what you do or do not put in your mouth. An intimate God.
From a non-theistic point of view, you could say it’s a suggestion to build a relationship with the most compassionate, comforting and wise part of your own soul. To quote the reading: “We will mend you with pieces of your own sweet self, sweet Soul” A part of yourself that, even in the heat of your daily moments, can point you to what you really need. A part of your own sweet self which can become, over time, your true best friend.
The speaker in the podcast suggests that this intimacy piece is yet another reason people don’t talk much about addiction or its antidotes. And hearing that I realized, that may be of the main reasons I haven’t talked much about my own relationship to addiction, in this sermon or, well, not ever really. It *can* feel so personal. But yet. I, like that young woman whose memorial service I led, will not be here forever. And maybe talking about it will help someone.
So I’ve got my own achilles heel, a sugar addiction, which, at a young age, turned into life long struggle with food and weight — at one point in my 20’s I weighed over 230 pounds. I’ve had my ups and downs with it, been distracted by it, thought I beat it, sometimes felt tied to a chair by it, sometimes convinced that food was my best friend. When I went to seminary it hit me that this thing was going to get in my way. I became willing to join a 12 step group, gave up sugar and keep my food really simple. I got support, I get accountability. And I have gotten a spiritual journey, through some tough spots and out the other end that I can tell, has been leading me back deeper and deeper into my own love affair with life. The real thing. And for that I am so grateful.
Now, for those of you who missed the last few minutes of this sermon because you are still thinking about that caffeine story, wondering, is she asking me to give up caffeine? I’m not giving up caffeine, is that what she’s asking? Because I’m not doing that.
I will just be really clear: I’m not telling you to give up caffeine. I’m also not telling you to give up sugar, I’m not even telling you to give up the glass of wine you like to have with dinner. I have no agenda for you.
But what I am suggesting, what I am offering, is an invitation, to ask your own sweet soul, what it needs. Where it hurts. Where it craves freedom. And I encourage you, if you are hearing a call, and also hearing some equal and opposite discouragement, that I believe healing is always possible, and comes in many different forms.
In his song, Leonard Cohen sings about a broken hallelujah. But remember that it is also Leonard Cohen who once said not only that there is a crack in everything. He also said that that is where the light gets in.
May it be so.
Song: Hallelujah, Music & Lyrics: Leonard Cohen, Featured Artists: Jamie Brown-Hart & Canadian Virtual Choir, Pianist, Music Arranger, Producer: Joshua Tamayo
May we find in all our broken hallelujahs
That that is where the light gets in,
Illuminating the path back to ourselves,
To our own love affair with life, and to each other.