Friday, November 18, 2005

Show Me The Way

I just got finished reading A Million Little Pieces (recommended) by James Frey and I wanted to comment, briefly, on one of the recurring themes in the book. The central story is of Frey's battle with an addiction to drugs and alcohol that is of such epic size and strength that it is a miracle that he lived long enough to write the book in the first place. Following a binge, a drug-related accident and a period of semi-consciousness, Frey is whisked off to a rehabilitation and treatment center somewhere in Minnesota by intervening friends and family.

While in rehab, Frey frequently butts heads with the staff over treatment options. The problems arise because Frey doesn't take to the 12 Step Program, or the AA model, and refuses to follow the proscribed path. What is interesting, though, is the certainty with which the staff at the rehab center tell Frey that he will fail and relapse into addiction unless he follows their method. It is the only way to health and an addiction-free life. There is no other way to stay clean. Nothing else will work. No debate.

I am immediately distrustful of any group, individual, philosopher, guru, prophet, politician, cleric or other entity that claims to have the one and only path to salvation - whatever that "salvation" might be. In the case of Frey and the 12 Step/AA model, just consider what the ramifications would be if the 12 Step zealots are right and there really is no other method for overcoming addiction to drugs and alcohol. It would mean that no one in the history of the world was able to beat addiction before the 12 Step/AA model was invented - or revealed. Further, every person without access to, and instruction in, the 12 Step/AA model is inevitably doomed. No other culture, society, individual, counselor or thinker was ever able to resolve the complicated issues of addiction. Only the 12 Step/AA model.

I remain highly incredulous. Not to mention the follow up question: Is there any way to improve on the 12 Step/AA model? Don't mess with perfection I guess - even though by their own admission, the success rate of the 12 Step/AA model is roughly 15%.

I am equally skeptical of similar claims made by organized religions. I understand that for recruiting and discipline purposes, religious dogma invariably contains the concept that its particular teachings are the one and only true path to salvation. I think the ubiquity of this claim is also related to humans' desire for a sense of certainty in a world in flux. People have always been drawn toward gurus, ideas and concepts that offer a foundation and an opportunity to find firm footing in an ever-changing and unsettling world. It is easier to abdicate control, put such notions to rest and move on to other matters. As a result, we get this formulation: Without following the tenets of [insert religion] you will be damned to eternal suffering. But the same problems arise as in the context of the 12 Step/AA model.

What about all the people that lived before the creation or revelation of [insert religion]? For example, if Christ is the only path to salvation, what about all those poor shlubs that had the bad fortune to be born before Christ's appearance? Further, what about the people born in far away lands who, for centuries after Christ was born, lived their lives without any access to the teachings of Christ, Christianity or even the knowledge of his existence? Would God so capriciously and arbitrarily damn millions and millions of people to eternal suffering out of the happenstance of the timing and location of their births? What if there is life in other parts of the vast universe? Sorry folks, God picked Earth and, even then, one little plot on the planet Earth, to deposit the one vehicle for salvation. Those lucky enough to find themselves near him will have a chance at being saved. The rest of you will be playing catch-up for centuries to come. Those are the breaks.

It reminds me of a series of questions my grandmother asked when she was a child attending a religious school. The teacher that day was discussing the topic of missionaries spreading the "good news" to all the heathens in distant lands. My grandmother, precocious would be an understatement, then asked about the fate of the souls of the "heathens" before the missionaries arrived. The teacher, taken aback at the question, answered that God would not punish them for what they did not know, so surely they would be admitted into heaven. Call it the "ignorance is bliss" exemption. After thinking it over for a moment, my grandmother then responded, "Then why ruin their chances?"

Please understand that I do not mean to disparage any religion, or the 12 Step/AA method of overcoming addiction. I do not discount the fact that truth abounds in various religions as well as treatment methods. But I doubt very much that any one group or individual has a monopoly on truth, salvation, health or any other desirable trait or aspiration. There are too many teachers from which to learn to ever declare game over - this is it. It would be encouraging if people could accept that level of uncertainty and recognize that life's rich pageant - so complex, so intricate and amorphous - defies simple answers that form straight lines which bisect and exclude entire hemispheres of alternatives.

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