The Path Forward

Self, Addictions

Contributed by: Inner City Youth Alive

Written by: Kent Dueck

One thing we all have in common is our hyper focus on ourselves.  We can’t stop looking at ourselves. Some humanists talk about the importance of self-interest.  They posit that if everyone was driven by self-interest the world would be a beautiful place. Before you dig in your heels, they make a case for the fact that looking out for others is at the center of self-interest.  If people around you are taken care of, your world will be better.  

Today I felt like writing a controversial article.  I will construct little escape hatches throughout, so out of ironic self-interest I can escape from your critiques by simply saying, “I’m just talking about what I see.” The big question I want to touch on has to do with two imposing phrases that might make me sound like a professor, but which are nonetheless important to the cultural moment in which we find ourselves. These are the sovereignty of the individual and how it relates to the power of the collective from which the individual comes.  

In the age of identity politics we have divided everyone into various collectives, often around race.  These categories are intimately linked to our identities and they quickly become political. But let me honest – I am no fan of identity politics.  From what I can see, this mode of engaging with the world tends to cause harm while masquerading as virtue. Nietzche said, “Your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue.” I think that is too often exactly what happens.

Identity politics cause us to see oppressors everywhere.  To be clear, there absolutely are oppressive systems, but when you see them everywhere you actually end up like the little boy who cried wolf. Casual observers will stop paying attention to very real and very harmful oppressors because they see the term so frequently abused. It is akin to flopping in basketball or soccer. There is power to be gained by acting as if you’ve been fouled, but eventually the refs start to look the other way. And that is where the real harm is done.  Society becomes numb and non-responsive to the real injustices out there and this hurts real victims.   

 We definitely need our communities, but often it isn’t our community that pulls us up.  I have been watching people change for 33 years, 54 – if you count me watching me. Lately I have become obsessed with questions around what people did to change.  I always ask people what they did to become healthy. About two weeks ago, an old friend from our community walked into my office. It was so good to see him. He looked healthy and strong.  Clearly something had changed in his life compared to the last time I had seen him. So I straight-up asked him what happened and he laid it out. I have heard his story over and over and over again. The details of these stories of “the walk forward” have an obvious pattern.  It’s a pattern that will not surprise you, because you probably know it personally.  

Really, it is the 12 steps.  He talked about his life being out of control.  He talked about having hurt people out of the pain of his past, which of course is connected to historical oppression. However, it was precisely in that moment when he owned his response to past injustices that he found the strength to change.  He then looked to God to help him stand up and began that personal journey of making amends with all the people he had hurt. He stepped away from (yes — away from) his community as it had become a negative force in his life. He had gotten his identity from his community and they had told him, “You are a criminal—that’s who you are.”  Somewhere deep inside God was whispering something about a different identity to him, but he needed to be called away to hear what God was saying to him as an individual. 

There is something in our community that both bothers and intrigues me.  Whenever someone puts their life back on a good path it involves a season of isolation and loneliness.   There literally can be a mom living two houses away from another mom and both are trying to step away from addiction, but their visceral reflex to be alone remains.  However, something happens in that season and I guess it squares with how we all need to step back and step out of our communities when we are making a big life decision.  It is during this time that the individual is claiming back their personal power by taking responsibility for their part in the mess that their lives have become.  

Is it not true that when we are broken we tend to surround ourselves with people who affirm our dysfunctions?  So to heal, we have to step away from the forces that drag us down. It happens at every level – rich, poor or middle-class. If we are stuck in unhealthy ways of behaving we tend not to want to be around people who would push us toward change. In the words of one young man who showed up looking tired and frazzled at our center:  “Kent, the whole community wants me high.” So my friend needs to get away from those voices if he is going to find a way out.

However, once the season of isolation is over I see people reattach themselves to a new community that is strong and healthy, one where culture is strong and made up of individuals who fanatically own their stuff.  These are strong people, who in balance, deal with the pain inflicted on them in their past while owning their past negative reactions to their pain. The individual’s decision to change is an expression of their individual sovereignty, but now their choice is being affirmed by their new community. 

The message in all of this in the big change we make in our lives is that “We are the people we are waiting for.”  It never works to leave our personal well-being in the hands of someone that doesn’t care about us as much as we care about ourselves.  We need the power of a good and caring community to help us break through to the best side of the life we want to live, but that will never happen without someone taking a long hard look in the mirror, and with an earnest resolve, saying, “My life has become unmanageable. I need to make different choices.”