And you thought my problem was porn!
The other day, I ran across a description of the typical alcoholic. I tweaked it a bit to apply to me, a sex addict. Here it is:
Characteristic of the so-called typical [sex addict] is a narcissistic egocentric core, dominated by feelings of omnipotence, intent on maintaining at all costs its inner integrity. . . . Inwardly the [sex addict] brooks no control from man or God. He, the [sex addict], is and must be the master of his destiny. He will fight to the end to preserve that position.
“A narcissistic egocentric core.” Ouch! Nevertheless, it describes me quite accurately as I was before recovery and how I will be again if I ever quit working my recovery program. Before recovery, one huge tool I wielded in my struggle to maintain narcissistic equilibrium was non-stop criticism of people around me. It was compulsive. I couldn’t not point out the perceived faults of others.
I understand now that this behavior was a smoke screen. My broken brain thought I could draw attention away from my own failings by loudly fixating on what everyone else was doing wrong.
As with being an addict, I couldn’t stop being a narcissist simply by not being a narcissist. I couldn’t become well just by being well. I needed help from outside myself. Ultimately, I needed Heavenly Father to change me on the inside. I was incapable of making that change on my own.
A roll of dollar bills got me thinking.
Recently, I adjusted the way I operate when I’m out and about that has helped me recognize a difference between me before recovery and me after recovery. I live in an urban area and as is frequently the case in urban areas, there are lots of homeless folks all over the place. A good friend of mine made a decision a while back that she was going to give a buck to every homeless person she encounters on her way to and from work. At the beginning of the week, she arms herself with a big roll of singles and over the course of her work week she hands out dozens of bills.
I watched her for a while and then I decided that she was experiencing something in her life that I wanted. Not too long after, I was in my car with my eleven-year-old son. I had pulled up to a stoplight and was waiting when I noticed a panhandler. In his hand was a little cardboard placard with something clever scrawled on it in Sharpie.
I looked at him then down at my steering wheel and then back at him. Quickly, I reached for my wallet, pulled out a buck, rolled down the window, whistled to get his attention and popped the dollar bill in his hand just as the light changed and I began to drive off.
A spiritual connection with another human being.
But then for a moment, time stopped. He looked at me and I looked at him. He said, “Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.” He was sincere. I replied, “Good luck to you. I hope things work out.” I was sincere. And then I felt something for a homeless person that I had never felt before–compassion. I genuinely wanted good things for this man with a filthy beard, holes in his jeans and a flea-bitten dog sitting on a piece of cardboard looking just as forlorn as his owner. I hoped that he’d get his life turned around and, in the meantime, I hoped that that dollar would combine with the kindness of other strangers to bring him some relief from his struggles today.
What an experience! Remember, I’m an addict. I am narcissistic by nature. I’m normally so self-absorbed that I have no ability to care genuinely for anyone other than myself and those who are closest to me. I am so wrapped up in my own problems that I feel like I can’t spare empathy. It’s all about me all of the time.
Until now. This man and I connected for a moment. Something spiritual passed between us. I was edified and I felt empathy for him. Now, granted, it was only a buck, but still, I felt something change inside me.
I’m in my mid-forties. In my entire life up until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever given money to a panhandler. I’d seen hundreds of them. They’re all around me here where I’ve lived for nearly twenty years. They were all over the place when I was in graduate school on the East Coast. They were all over the place in the European cities where I served my mission and where I lived when I was a kid. And I’d never given any of them a dime.
A tortured mind comes up with amazing rationalizations!
That’s not to say that I didn’t notice them. To the contrary, I would stare at them and I would wonder what bad decisions they’d made in their lives that brought them to this low point where they’re sleeping on a newspaper on a heating grate and eventually dying of pneumonia. I would come up with a dozen reasons why I was not going to give them anything:
1. He’ll probably use the money to buy drugs.
2. He can go and get healthy food at a soup kitchen.
3. I don’t want to encourage panhandling. (God forbid!)
4. By withholding my help, I’m actually encouraging him to get cleaned up, off the streets and into a job.
5. He brought this misery on himself; he needs to suffer the natural consequences of his behavior; withholding my help allows him to experience his “just desserts.”
6. If I start giving money to all the homeless, I’ll quickly be broke and my family will suffer.
7. I don’t need to help this person; I pay fast offerings and that’s the Lord’s way of helping the needy.
8. It’s too much trouble to reach for my wallet.
9. He’ll probably just be rude and unappreciative. I’ll save us both an awkward encounter.
10. He could be violent. Why risk my safety?
11. I’ll be giving alms in the view of other people and that would just be a really self-aggrandizing thing to do. Better to withhold the aid than to risk being viewed by others as a glory seeker. (How’s that for tortured thinking?)
12. Etc., etc., etc., ad naseum.
If someone else was nearby, I’d make a point of commenting negatively about this homeless person. I’d make it clear that although I’d seen him, I was deliberately withholding my aid for his own good.
I was always intimately familiar with King Benjamin’s discourse. I nearly had it memorized. I’d read and studied it so many times over the years. “For are we not all beggars anyway?” You know how he says that we need to take care of the needy and respond positively when the beggar asks for help? Somehow, that whole concept had come to mean something completely opposite in my tortured, narcissistic, addict brain.
Lust destroys a person’s ability to experience empathy. Is that not reason enough to shun lust? As one who was addicted to lust, I was hollow on the inside. Lust had eaten away all the compassion in my soul.
And then along came recovery. Heavenly Father has been making those changes inside me that I could never make for myself. He has changed my thinking. He has changed my heart. He has caused me to see my place in this life in simpler terms.
No more luxury of sitting in judgment.
As an addict in recovery, I no longer have the “luxury” of being able to sit in judgment over my fellow humans. My recovery requires that I render help to the helpless whether they “deserve” it or not. Maybe he’ll buy drugs with that money. Maybe he won’t. I don’t know. Not my problem. I just do what my recovery requires.
Something else happened on that day at the stoplight. In addition to the empathy, I felt peace of mind and spirit. All those hundreds of times before, when I’d passed by on the other side of road like the individuals–not the Good Samaritan–who refused to help the one who had fallen among thieves and was lying bleeding in a ditch, I had felt something prickly. My mind and my mouth were doing mental and verbal gymnastics to justify why I wasn’t going to help the homeless guy. It was an ugly feeling, but I didn’t realize it. It was an ungodly feeling, but my brain was telling me, “It’s better in this instance not to help.” And yet for some reason, I’d replay the event over and over in my head, each time trying to convince myself that I was doing the right thing, the Christian thing.
But not on this day. I gave a buck to a beggar at a stoplight and as I drove off, I felt love for him and others in his situation. I felt peace and then I went on with my day. I’m not suggesting that this experience was anything grand. It wasn’t. It was just a buck. But for me, the moment was priceless.
A father and a son experience compassion together.
One other thing. As I drove off, I looked over my shoulder at my son who was in the back seat. He was riveted. He’d been watching the whole encounter. I asked him, “That guy looked pretty beat up, didn’t he?” “Yeah,” he replied. “Hopefully, we helped him out a little, huh?” “Yeah.” He wasn’t talking much, but the look on his face at that moment seemed to say, “My dad is the greatest man on this planet!” What a blessing for both of us that he’d been able to witness his father showing compassion for someone less fortunate.
This is the same father who a few years before would have driven off shaking his head and muttering something about how the homeless shouldn’t be allowed to disrupt traffic with panhandling. Thank God my son didn’t have to witness an emotionally and spiritually bankrupt parent drowning in a tidal wave of his own rationalizations. He got to see how simple it is to help the helpless.
I’ll say it again: Recovery is a pretty great place to be!