by Dale Ryan
Loving God and your neighbor as yourself. That, according to Jesus, is the heart of the matter. Loving relationships with God, with other people and with ourselves are the heart of what is important in life. Relationships are the substance of the recovery journey, the central agenda of God’s kingdom and the key to health and healing. The Bible is abundantly clear about this. The new life we have in Christ is not a privatized, self-sufficient, self-helped kind of life. It is, rather, a shared life, a life of participation in community, a life in relationship, a life enriched by mutual-help.
In spite of this, a great many of us prefer self-sufficiency. We prefer not needing other people. And we have understandable reasons for this preference. We have, many of us, been hurt in relationships. And we have learned that there are many rewards for being self-sufficient. I learned this quite early in life and adopted not-being-needy as a life-style. I found that I gained respect for not-being-needy. I was invited to be the strong, capable kind of person who selflessly paid attention to the needs of others. Not surprisingly, I chose a career in professional Christian ministry.
Not needing other people, of course, is all pretend. It isn’t real. It is completely fake. I am, and I have always been, a needy person. I am not remotely close to being self-sufficient. Nor have I ever been. It is possible to sustain the pretense for a while, but eventually the effort required to sustain the illusion becomes too great and we wind up exhausted, frustrated and depressed. The realities of life force us, eventually, to face facts. We cannot survive just being a giver in relationships. We need to receive as well.
I spoke recently with a pastor who supervises recovery ministry in a large local church. He told me about a conversation with congregational leaders in which the participants in the recovery ministry were referred to as ‘extra grace required’ people. We both were amazed at the level of denial (and the sub-Christian theology) which underlie such language. But the truth is that for most of my life I could easily have prayed “Thank you God that I am not like others who need extra grace.” (see Luke 18:10 for Jesus’ attitude about prayers of this kind ). Today it is abundantly clear to me that I need as much grace as is available. There is no such thing as an ‘extra grace required’ person, of course, but, if there were, I would certainly qualify. The good news is that there is no shortage of grace. All of God’s grace is available. All of the endless resources of God’s grace have been made available to us through Jesus.
Like anyone who attempts to make not-being-needy a life-style, the development of this kind of toxic individualism has had profound consequences for my life. Recovery, for me, has meant a lot of change. But none of the changes have been as fundamental as the changes in my illusions of self-sufficiency. Every single step in recovery is a challenge to this kind of grandiosity. Every day in recovery is a day closer to new and healthier relationships. Relationships based on the truth rather than relationships based on the illusions of not-being-needy.
In the process of learning that I am a needy person, I have been repeatedly impressed by the forces in our culture which make recovery difficult. There are many rewards for those who can manage to present themselves as not-needy. And there can be a great deal of shame reserved for those whose needs are exposed.
Cultural Bias Against Needs & Relationships
We live in a culture which encourages the not-being-needy life style. The Lone Ranger, the Hollywood Star, the Super-Hero, the Entrepreneur. . . our world is full of such images which emphasize individual performance rather than relational or community values. It effects every area of our lives. I have been impressed recently, for example, by the way in which our culture emphasizes ‘leaving home’ as the central metaphor for the tasks of adolescence. This way of talking about adolescence views parent-child relationships as something to leave rather than as something to mature. The implied goal is not ‘developing an adult-to-adult relationship with your parents that will last for a life time’ or ‘learning to take adult responsibility as a mature member of the community.’ Rather, because we are so out of touch with our need for parenting, we find it easier to talk about ‘growing up’ as if it required us to bring parental relationships to an end. We just ‘leave home.’ The truth, of course, is that we need parenting. Even adults need parents. We need parents at age 40 in different ways that we needed them at age 4, but we still need parents. This is just one very small example of the way in which the metaphors and instincts of our culture devalue relationships. We live in a world where the mythology of self-actualized, self-contained, self-helped and self-absorbed individuals dominates the landscape.
Fortunately, there have always been advocates for placing a higher priority on community and relationships. People with enough sanity to recognize their own neediness have always reminded us that healthy relationships are the goal, not just self-actualization. John Winthrop has often been presented as a prime historical example of this tradition in America. In his frequently referenced sermon given on board ship in 1630 just before landing in Salem harbor this Puritan leader said “We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoyce together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body.” John Wesley made the same point a hundred years later in 1738 when he wrote “. . .[there is] no holiness but social holiness.” The choice of language is a little different from how we would say it today but the message is the same – we are not isolated individuals seeking self-actualization but a community of people who seek healing. What a difference it would have made if this biblical emphasis had played a larger role in the shaping of our culture’s values!
It has often been a source of amazement to me to see how frequently an anti-need and anti-relationship bias has effected the mental health community. I, naively, expected that therapists and others who work in the ‘mental health’ field would share, consciously or unconsciously, in the biblical tradition of valuing community and relationships. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that many therapists are deeply committed to alternative values, most typically the values of expressive individualism. Robert Bellah and his coauthors in Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life describe ‘therapeutic consciousness’ and suggest that “In its pure form, the therapeutic attitude denies all forms of obligation and commitment in relationships, replacing them only with the ideal of full, open, honest communication among self-actualized individuals. . . .In a world of independent individuals who have no necessary obligation to one another, and whose needs may or may not mesh, the central virtue of love – indeed the virtue that sometimes replaces the idea of love – is communication.” There are, of course, many in professional roles who share the biblical commitment to relationships. The emergence of a family systems orientation among mental health providers in the last decade or so, while it is no guarantee that a therapist shares in the biblical tradition of valuing relationships, is an encouraging example of the recovery of biblical traditions in the mental health community.
It is true, of course, that the skills of ‘self reliance’ and the ‘resiliency’ that we learn in neglectful and abusive environments can be extremely useful skills. They should not be dismissed as worthless. Hypervigilance and dissociation, which are some of the most lasting effects of trauma, are skills that can save our lives in dangerous situations. They are just what we need on a battlefield. But they are not the skills that will help us deepen relationships and sustain community over the long haul. We cannot build a full healthy life out of self reliance and resiliency. We need each other. I should probably emphasize that the recovery journey is not designed to take us from self-reliant needlessness to other-reliant neediness. The goal of recovery is not to encourage dependency on other people. The goal is, rather, to recognize what is real – we are needy but resourceful people who can both give and receive in mutual relationships. The journey of recovery is away from covert and unproductive attempts to meet needs which we refuse to acknowledge and towards direct attempts to responsibly meet needs which we fully acknowledge.
Anti-need Bias & the Christian Community
Unfortunately there are many examples of the fact that the Christian community participates in the anti-need, anti-relationship bias of our culture. I spoke some time ago with the personnel director of a large Christian organization. This organization had been experiencing a rather high staff turnover rate and had come to the conclusion that this was because of the ‘personal dysfunctions’ of the people they had employed. His solution to the problem? Hire people who don’t have problems. He was prepared to work hard to find really healthy people who were self-sufficient and self-reliant – people who had overcome the difficulties of their troubled family backgrounds and who no longer had needs which would interfere with their productivity. Sound like a good idea? Like many Christian ministries, this organization had made the decision to hire the ‘heroes’ from dysfunctional homes – the overachievers, the people who do not appear needy. How dramatically different from the instincts of Jesus! Jesus’ personnel policies did not include a preference for people who had no needs. Just the opposite. If you are well, as Jesus put it, you have no need for a physician. If you have no needs, the whole Christian enterprise will neither interest you nor be helpful to you. The Kingdom of God is not intended to be the playground of need-less heroic individuals. It is intended by God to be a place where needy people who are prepared to share the journey with others will find a community of safety and healing. It is precisely our needs, surprisingly, which qualify us for participation in God’s Kingdom – both as recipients of God’s grace and as servants within the community of people who seek to follow Jesus.
On the theological level it is not difficult to see the influence of toxic individualism on American Christianity. American theology in the last century as been deeply shaped by a ‘decisionist’ emphasis. The focus of this kind of theology is on the importance of an individual making correct choices. What is thought to be critical is that an individual ‘choose Jesus’ or ‘decide for Christ.’ It is important to recognize that this focus on individual decision making is only one of many ways to communicate the heart of the Christian message. It is a theological frame of reference deeply connected with a particular tradition in western philosophy which emphasizes individualism and the centrality of volition (choosing) in human personhood.
My point is not that decisionist theology is ‘bad’ theology. Nor is it necessarily ‘unbiblical’ theology. My point is that this emphasis on individual decision-making comes with some significant dangers. We need to remember that Jesus’ distinctive call to his followers was not “decide for me.” It was “Come follow me.” I think it is quite clear from the text that for Jesus this meant “Come, be a part of the community of people who are following me.” Decisionist theology is risky theology in our historical context because of the way in which it can reinforce some of the most toxic elements of individualism. The effects of this toxicity can be plainly seen in the Christian community. There is no more isolated or privatized form of spirituality than one based on the belief that “all I need in life is Jesus.” Yet to many Christians today this may sound like basic Christian truth. It is not basic Christian truth. It never has been. Jesus did not teach toxic individualism. Scripture makes it very clear that we are not designed to live isolated, self-sufficient lives. The ‘just me and Jesus’ life-style is far short of God’s intentions for us. We are created by God for life in community – for life shared, life interdependent. We are hard-wired for rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. It is not good for us to be alone. Never has been. Never will be.
Recovery and relationships
The burdens of toxic individualism are heavy. Most of us eventually find that we can’t sustain the pretense any longer. The unavoidable realities of life force us to realize that we need help. And that means we need relationships, we need a community, we need fellowship in recovery. We need to admit to someone else that we are out of control and desperately lonely. Much to our surprise, we find that this moment of painful but honest self-awareness can be the starting point for a life of recovery.
One of the basic strengths of the recovery movement is it’s acknowledgment of our need for each other. Recovery from past wounds or from present addictions does not happen in isolation. It happens in fellowship with others. We do not recover by reading books about recovery. We do not recover by becoming more educated about recovery. Recovery is a course with a laboratory requirement. The lectures alone may be interesting but they won’t give you what you really need. Fellowship in recovery is essential because it gives us opportunities to practice self-awareness, honesty, respectful listening, constructive conflict and making amends. It is in community that we learn new ways to think, feel and live.
It is no accident that the fundamental spiritual disciplines which make recovery possible are social disciplines. We have learned how to be the way we are in relationships. And we will learn to be new and different kinds of people in new and healthier relationships. If you look carefully at what people actually do when they do recovery, you will find that we invest in relationships by practicing several traditional spiritual disciplines. For example, we practice confession, testimony, and making amends. These are not activities which we can do in isolation. Recovery takes place in community, in relationships.
Let’s look more closely at how this works in the case of confession. Confession has long been a spiritual discipline practiced within the Christian community. With this long tradition has come very mixed results. Confession is subject to many kinds of abuses. When implemented in non-mutual relationships, confession can easily deteriorate into a shamefest. In response to abuses of this kind, of course, many Christian communities have abandoned the whole practice of confession. But, when abandoned entirely, people will find alternative ways to meet their need for confession. Recent American experience provides a remarkable example of how this works. You don’t have to watch very much daytime TV in America to find quite extraordinary examples of a kind of extreme autobiographical exhibitionism. This is the kind of bizarre substitute for confession which people will invent when they lack appropriate and healthy communities in which to practice confession. Talk shows are full of people ‘dumping’ unprocessed trauma on national TV in a kind of naive hope that ‘getting it out’ will purge the trauma from their emotional system. But emotional ‘dumping’ is not the same as confession. To be helpful at all, confession requires a confessing community – a place where mutual confession is accompanied by long term commitments to relationships in which we learn from the experience, faith and hope of others.
Confession is one of the things that the Christian community is recovering as the Christian recovery movement grows. In the most basic 12 step group and in many other kinds of support groups confession is practiced in ways that are life transforming. Far from creating shame, the practice of confession can lead to personal growth because of the support, encouragement, faith and hope received from the fellowship of co-strugglers. A similar dynamic can take place in healthy therapeutic relationships. A relationship with a therapist has been for many of us the first really safe relationship within which to face the shame we experience about being needy and the fear of what it will mean if we acknowledge these needs.
It is important, of course, to emphasize that the purpose of therapeutic relationships is not just to learn how to have a good relationship with yourself or to have a good relationship with a therapist. The purpose of therapeutic relationships is to learn the basic skills and to become the kind of person who can have a reasonably healthy relationship with anyone – including yourself and your therapist. Similarly the goal of recovery groups is not just to learn how to have healthy relationships with other people in recovery – but to learn the skills and to become the kind of person who can have a reasonably healthy relationship with anyone. Step twelve of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous has always seemed full of wisdom to me. By emphasizing ‘carrying the message to others’ it makes it clear that recovery is not just about me. It is about consciously investing in relationships with people who are still deeply entrenched in the addictive process. Sobriety, in the twelve step tradition, is not just not using. It is a whole new life style that involves mutual-support, conscious investments in our relationship with God and disciplined efforts to reach out to others.
Making Relationships a Priority
I have not found it easy to make relationships, fellowship and community a priority. Sometimes it feels like swimming upstream against the pressure of generations of family dysfunction, against the pressure of cultural biases against intimacy, and against my own introverted predisposition. But I cannot think of any significant real change that I’ve made without the support of others. It has always been in the context of relationships that growth has come. As much as I would like to sit quietly by myself and “think things through” until change comes – it has never worked that way for me. That’s just not how change happens.
Making relationships a priority can mean lots of things. For some of us it boils down to ‘keep coming back’. For others it means taking new risks in relationship – not allowing the vulerability of our needs stand in the way of intimacy. For all of us the steps are short ones. Relationships are built one-day-at-a-time. But one-day-at-a-time we can grow in our capacity for intimacy, trust, vulnerability. We can grow in out capacity to give love and to receive love. And that’s worth all the effort. May God grant you the courage you need this day to make one small day-at-a-time step towards healthier relationships.
Dale Ryan is an Associate Professor of Recovery Ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary and is the CEO of Christian Recovery International.
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