Addictions Anonymous, 27: Normal As The Gold Standard—Part One
This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.
If normal is to be the standard towards which we strive, exactly what qualities of personality will be important? What will we try to measure, learn, and teach to others? In this chapter and the next, I present a list of seventeen proposed character dimensions and offer a brief discussion of each.
Suggested dimensions of noble or idealized normal character
1. Living Simple:
It takes as much skill and determination to live a simple life as it takes to learn and practice a complex and complicated life, but it's a different kind of skill with a very different purpose. We add complexity because of desire and ambition, because we think simple is not enough. We return to simplicity when those goals fail to bring peace of mind and happiness. Much of our discontent flows from artificial and unnecessary complexity.
Noble character calls for simplicity in every aspect of living. Cravings that arise from depression or frustration can be reduced by a simplified life style. Tastes in food, clothing, language, and entertainment need little embellishment. This is so because higher priorities can replace or diminish pure appetite. Noble character is not joyless, but the joy is mostly intellectual and emotional. It is often very private. It does not depend upon mere pleasure, upon the relief of depression, or upon the approval of others. The joy of secular noble character flows from new insights, personal accomplishments and progress measured by personal and private standards.
The meaning of simple is simple; it means that in our daily lives unnecessary complexity is a serious distraction, and so we can practice simple dress, simple speech, simple food, simple exercise, and so forth. Above all, I think, simple means not inventing complex answers to unanswerable questions. Simple is admitting what we do not know, and it means not feeling bad about that. Simplicity means living with less even when we can afford more.
Noble character depends on inner direction and self-discipline. While taking care of the physical body, one can avoid excess and extravagance for very practical reasons; over-feeding any appetite always leads during abstinence to a rebound depression and, later, to increased appetite. Feeding outrageous appetites takes time and resources away from personal growth while rebound depression saps motivation and produces desperation. Personal growth is impossible without prudent self-discipline.
Of course, we need not indulge in self-flagellation, starvation or any other extreme of punishment or self-denial to achieve a degree of noble character. We must be willing to spend time learning self-discipline in small steps. Sometimes, however, total abstinence from certain activities may be necessary to develop self-discipline. In other cases, such as learning meditation and relaxation techniques, long periods of practice may be needed. Once defined, programs for reading, exercise, diet and study can be placed ahead of other impulses and interests. Such selfish, self-defined programs should continue regardless of all pressures to adapt or compromise.
3. Being Honest
Persons of noble character would be honest and direct in all aspects of living. People may find such a person abrasive, insensitive, and insulting if they are not used to, or willing to, hear a direct expression of opinion. Self-honesty allows honesty toward others. There is no role in noble character for deceit or clever maneuvering. This direct honesty is necessary because any form of dishonesty or deceit distorts thinking, relationships, and the search for self-knowledge. If it is not honest, it cannot be simple. Honesty, again, is a tool, not an abstract moral mandate. We can always try to be gentle in our honesty, of course, but the ideal demands rigorous honesty in all aspects of life, and people need to learn to hear the views of others without becoming defensive. There often is enormous social pressure—an expectation, if you will—to soften or hide the truth about others. Not that our opinions and impressions are absolute truth; the dishonesty lies in not disclosing them in a firm and gentle way.
4. The Humble Life
The person of noble character is by choice humble, but always beyond humiliation. Only you, the individual, can decide to be humble, unassuming and modest. To be self-congratulatory, to seek importance in the eyes of others, or to boast about ones accomplishments are habits that open one to control by the judgment of others. We can be humiliated only if we allow others to control how we feel about ourselves. It is important to ask for and listen to criticism, but to reserve for your own judgment the decision to change.
To be humble is to be able to go unnoticed, and to go unnoticed is to be free of what others think or want or expect. Humility thus provides an essential freedom. The thoughtful person elects to hide the light lest the attention gained by shining it distract from the personal pilgrimage. History is littered with the bodies of wise and spiritual people who, in the end, could not resist the influence of follower-cults made up of inadequate personalities who attach themselves to people of strength. The development of a cult is the end of sainthood, not the beginning, as far as the individual is concerned.
5. Living Free
I recommend the study of Buddhist philosophy since, as I see it, Buddhism is not so much a religion as a way of living on earth, a way that I admire very much. One of the most important ideas in Buddhism is that of enlightenment. When they talk about enlightenment, it sounds very much like the so-called spiritual experience William Wilson wrote about in his text for alcoholics. The enlightened person is psychologically independent. He or she pushes the boundaries of freedom emotionally, intellectually and physically. Of course, we may have prices to pay for this freedom: loneliness, isolation, and misunderstanding are often parts of the independently developed spiritual life. Often, in history, noble character has been punished with banishment, poverty, and even death. Of course, noble character is not involved with rewards from without. It is about building within.
The passionate desire for complete intellectual and emotional freedom, and the practice of that freedom in everyday life, is absolute selfishness. Call it enlightened self-interest if you like, but the search for noble character is always a very selfish enterprise. It is no paradox that we serve ourselves best, at times, by serving others, since noble character serves the needs of others always from choice and is never forced by guilt, social pressure, or a desire to be liked and wanted by those served.
When I refer above to complete intellectual and emotional freedom I do not mean to imply, of course, a freedom to indulge in excesses such as addiction. I am referring to the freedom to think your own thoughts and control your own feelings.
6. The Ability To Detach
In some important ways, the person of noble character is emotionally detached. Although love and caring for others are vital parts of mindful living, noble character accepts the impermanent and transient nature of life and of the human experience. It accepts that there must be limits on love. Both caring and detachment can coexist in harmony within the individual, but it takes practice. We must know when to care actively and when to let go. And when we let go, it can be with love, never with anger or self-recrimination. We can let go of our attachments when others can do a better job of caring, when our own resources become too low to help, or when the inevitable fragility of life makes further attachment impossible.
The practice of noble character calls for emotional self-discipline. Physicians and other professionals learn this early in their careers. The good physician gives each patient all the skill and attention possible, and when what can be done is done, he or she goes on the next case. If the outcome was positive, there is little celebration since the physician was merely an agent in working a cure. If the outcome was negative, there may be a thoughtful reconsideration of the case, but there is no self-condemnation when all that could be done was done.
There are many sources of detachment, some of them less than noble. Using the physician as example, his or her detachment may flow from simple boredom, feelings of superiority, the press of business, generalized anger, personal depression, or even incompetence. We can only hope that professional detachment is a product of a well-tamed ego and balanced emotions; in other words, a deliberate choice. The presence of other desirable dimensions can help in arriving at that goal. Sadly, many professionals have been taught to believe that the inevitable, self-protective detachment required in professional work is some kind of emotional burnout, and that this burnout is a bad thing. Caring is a verb, it is something we all do for others. Immature caring is merely an emotion, and so the development of what some call burnout is really an important transition from noble feelings to practical judgment and skill. This is nothing to be ashamed of.
7. Being Unconventional
People of noble character often seem to be extreme in many respects when compared to widely accepted habits of social conformity. They seem unique, different, and often somewhat distant. Possibly this is because noble character points to a solitary path, a path leading into untried territory. They may pilgrimage into psychological landscapes disdained by others. Usually, of course, such new territory does not belong to those who would forbid access to it, so the wise person must often just say, "Thanks for the warning," and continue the chosen path alone.
In noble character, people learn to carry ideas to their logical and often extreme conclusions just to see what happens. These are sometimes called thought experiments. People may lose themselves, their sense of time, and their feelings of duty when absorbed in some fascinating subject. Thus, noble character may have a childlike quality of total focus and, of course, a kind of self-preoccupation. This, in a way, is like some aspects of addiction; it might be called the good side of addicts although no addiction is being practiced. Although they don't know it, some addicts have a very spiritual side. They already have some of the qualities of noble character however disorganized their behavior may be as a result of addiction.
The actual practice of spiritual living may mark one as eccentric. Such a person does, in fact, march to a different drummer. He or she has gone to extremes to achieve a simple goal since to be mindful is to be different from insensitive or less mindful comrades, and one cannot expect to be appreciated for this difference. Those who bother to look may see the practice of noble character as extreme although it may come naturally to the practitioner. But, there is no pride or self-consciousness about being different. It is just what others notice, not what is most important.
My use of unconventional as a dimension of noble character refers primarily to habits of thought, and only in some situations to public behavior. I do not wish to imply any kind of fanaticism or unwavering devotion to dogmatic beliefs since, I think, the thoughtful person is always experimenting, always flexible when adapting to new situations. Spiritual does not imply that such a person is rebellious for the sake of rebelling. They are, simply, just different, not to be different but because their pilgrimage makes them seem so to the rest of us.
The noble life is generally a life of service in spite of detachment and apparent selfishness. Love is, first and always, an action verb, not just a comfortable, warm feeling. To love is to care for another, not just about another. To love is to feed, advise, support, teach, cure, help, bathe, protect, employ, appreciate, listen to, complement, and even work for someone. And we can, in fact, find ourselves doing all these services without having the deep emotional attachment some people call love. Perhaps, in fact, we serve better when service is not colored by emotional attachment. Doing love and feeling love are not necessarily wedded in noble character.
Noble character demands acts of service. These acts must be skillful, well timed and offered only in the amount just needed to get the person going on his or her own.
Perhaps the most important and difficult parts of service are its withdrawal and limitations. Withdrawal is easiest when service has been a detached service. We do not begin to serve others with the greatest effectiveness until the decision to serve is fully voluntary, until in can be offered and withdrawn according to our best judgment rather than according to our own emotional needs. In noble character, service is always professional whether it is paid for or not.
Nothing is as alien to noble character as the notion of Santa Claus, a silly old man with endless resources who goes about giving everyone anything they want. What great damage he would do by distributing unearned rewards to people whose only skill is asking for gifts! The spiritual person is neither Santa Claus, Great Pumpkin, Tooth Fairy nor Easter Bunny. Unearned rewards are harmless, you say? Take that idea out into life and see where it leads. Put on a blindfold and distribute reward and punishment randomly. You will not last long, I think, and you will do no good.
Caring for and about others may have evolutionary advantages in the survival of the species, but blind caring sacrifices the caring individual to the common good. If you devalue your own search and sacrifice it in favor another's needs, that is a choice to be made. However, if you feel that there is a gun pointed at your head forcing you to care, then it is probably pointed from within.
To be pragmatic is to respect and accept a reality that works. It seems characteristic of any thoughtful person to have profound doubts about speculative theology. Perhaps, seeking some relief from endless religious controversy, spiritual people end up living very much in the here and now of the world in which they find themselves. I could argue this point by giving examples in the lives of saints, philosophers, and even in the life of Jesus. But, I do not wish to convince you of anything. Convince yourself through reading and the study of history if this interests you. Or, convince yourself by looking back into your own considerations of spiritualistic religion. To doubt, to question, to wonder . . . these are elemental, transcendent responses that do not have to be learned but may be suppressed by dominating parents and teachers. Sadly, shame is often attached to someone who asks questions admitting that he or she does not have needed information.
This life is wasted if it is not lived for its own sake in the here and now, if it is seen as some bothersome trial that one must survive to get to some imaginary paradise in a supposed afterlife. To live in the here and now is very difficult since training and experience focus attention on the past and the future. Personal serenity, however, grows if you can learn to let go of preoccupations about the past and future, about other places or remote personalities.
And so, noble character is practical. It focuses on real problems. It works to make this life in this here and now better, more fulfilling and more effective. To be spiritual is to be fully involved in tasks of ones own choosing, mindless of intruding thoughts and distractions from ego. It is to do what needs to be done to promote survival and to maximize life's opportunities.
10. Being Kind
Consistent with a relaxed and detached way of life, noble character suggests that one be kind; and please, do not define kind as giving people things just for the sake of giving. Kind refers to a compassionate state of mind, a way of relating to others. It is perhaps more style than substance.
A mean spirited person is usually troubled by negative feelings such as unresolved anger and depression. However, it is simply easier to be kind and considerate since it is far less demanding of energy and emotions. To be kind, of course, does not imply extravagant kindness such as giving away all of ones earthly possessions. There is no kindness in self-destruction.
However, thoughtful acts of kindness to friends, family, and community seem to foster noble character. Even the simple daily act of feeding the wild birds is a symbolic offering to the general good. It is kind to visit the sick, return a lost dog to its owner, help at the scene of an accident, or help someone in distress find appropriate help.
Kindness, modesty, anonymity, consistency, and prudence are all characteristics of noble character, but one without the others usually is not.
Is all this beginning to sound like the old Boy Scout Oath? Good! That oath, as it happens, is one of the most clearly stated, brief and easily grasped prescriptions for noble character you are likely to find anywhere. Do look it up sometime. It is a pity that believing in a god seems to be a requirement for belonging to the Boy Scouts, but that doesn't make Scouting all bad. I lasted, myself, two whole weeks as a Cub Scout along about 1942, but I have always been impressed with the qualities described in that oath.
Tolerance of the ways and weaknesses of others is a cardinal indication of noble character. We have less to learn from people who are just like ourselves, and so intellectual diversity is to be prized.
Patience and tolerance are necessary in order to profit from diversity. Tolerance asks that we become nonjudgmental, which is the way of the therapist. A judgment not based on evidence is a barrier built. If I go about labeling people, places and things as good or bad, in some absolute moral sense, then I cut off access to all that I need for my own growth. As soon as my ego makes a judgment on some arbitrary matter, I feel that I must voice it. When I voice my judgment, I get into an argument, enemies are made, and the journey stops. The only judgment I need to make is that the world as it is just as it should be. The rest is acceptance, learning, and tolerance.
Sadly, the important idea of being non-judgmental has been distorted in popular psychology and now seems to mean that the expression of any form of criticism or personal judgment of others is a very bad thing. It has come to mean something like unconditional love, the idea that we must love others without demand or expectation. Being non-judgmental means not imposing arbitrary standards and values on others, not that we must accept and like whatever values and behaviors we encounter.
It is important that the agnostic show tolerance for the religious beliefs of others. In fact, it is probably best to avoid all discussions of spiritualism and mysticism since such arguments only divide us more deeply. Others are free to believe whatever they find comforting, and if we try to strip others of their self-calming systems they will, of course, fight back as vigorously as if we were trying to take away any other survival mechanism.
The agnostic is not necessarily smarter or more evolved than those who accept religion. We are just different. Any attack on religion, any show of superiority or scientific learning, any attitude of condescension . . . these will hurt the agnostic more than the zealot. Religion is not the agnostic's war, and our spiritual mission is not to change the world, it is only about changing us. If we persuade at all, it is by example only. If we inform at all, it is by request only.
In this chapter I have covered:
1. Simplicity in living
3. Honesty with kindness
4. Humility and subjugation of ego
5. Freedom in personal and emotional living
6. Detachment or objectivity
7. Unconventional in thought and action when necessary
8. Serving and helpful to others from choice
10. Kind and compassionate
11. Tolerant and free of extreme judgments
For the rest of the list of things that define the ideal normal, please continue to the next chapter.