Beginning With Fire
The Story of Addiction, Human Nature, and Evolution
Problems & Mysteries
Addiction is born solving problems — and begins creating problems from that moment onward. The Prologue identifies the problems which shape Beginning With Fire.
- We have become a plague species in Earth’s biosphere, and addiction is deeply implicated in bringing that about.
- The very concept of addiction is notoriously, and dangerously, ill-defined among both professionals and the general public.
- As humans developed the capacity for language, they acquired an experience of “self,” a sense of identity projecting backward and forward in time. Ever since then humans have sought the most satisfactory and fulfilling experiences of self possible. This preoccupying effort, central to the process of addiction, is called the “problem of self” in this book.
- Lastly, throughout the book we will wrestle with a set of mysteries. Every good story has at least one mystery. This story of addiction, human nature and evolution has three. They are classical mysteries, and as such will not be solved, but rather serve to orient us, and integrate our story as it unfolds. These are the mysteries of self, of choice, and of love.
Chapters are then organized under sections which speak to the problems identified in the Prologue. These sections are titled: Solutions, Dissolutions, Resolutions, and Evolution.
My blood is alive with many voices telling me I am made of longing.
Rainer Marie Rilke
People often speak of addiction as being a form of self-medication. This is almost always true in the late stages, and is sometimes true in the early stages of addiction. But this view is too limited; it underestimates the richness, the allure, the sense of something very precious and magical happening, which is the hallmark of the initial entry into the realm of addictive solutions. As a speaker at an AA meeting once noted, “The best idea I ever had in my life was to get sober. The second-best idea I ever had was to get drunk.” In this section we gain an intimate familiarity with the onset of addiction; its enticements, its intricacy, and its underlying simplicity.
Chapter One — Enchantments
Every addiction begins with a transformation of the experience of self that seems wondrous at the time. This chapter presents four examples of such transformations.
- » A prehistoric cave-dweller is ecstatically inducted into pyromania.
- » A hundred thousand years later, in a cemetery in Iowa under the first full moon of summer, a young man, eventually the author of this book, finds his deepest yearnings miraculously fulfilled through the expedient of several cans of illicit beer.
- » In contrast with the first two vignettes, a young woman solves a very different version of the problem of self. Rather than ecstasy, alcohol provides her with an experience of inner sanctuary; of stoic indifference to the unrelenting abuse and hardship in her life.
- » An awkward, self-conscious fourteen-year-old discovers that he can, through the agency of a controversial video game, experience himself as a being endowed with supernatural powers, sexual and social potency, exemption from moral constraints, and immortality.
Chapter Two — Wiring
The features of human nature that together lay the groundwork for the addictive solution include:
- » Longing, as distinguished from needs and appetites.
- » An understandable preference for using shortcuts when they can be found.
- » Many different centers within us make up our experience of “self” at a given moment.
- » Addictive solutions always enlist coalitions among the members of these “inner tribes.”
The biomechanics of addiction — the details of neurochemistry, genetics, etc., that gobble up countless millions of dollars of research money — are about how addiction happens, not why it happens. Human longing is center-stage in the drama of addiction, and human longing resists scientific delineation, calibration and manipulation.
Chapter Three — From Anorexia to Zealotry
At the heart of addiction is the deep-seated conviction that control is the most adequate and satisfactory (and, eventually, compulsory) solution to the problem of self. This concept is itself almost elusively simple, but its manifestations are numberless. The scenario of enchantment plays out and presents itself in an uncountable myriad of ways. Some of these are drearily familiar, others unfamiliar, even bizarre. This chapter introduces a few basic constructs that make the process of addictive enchantment coherent and cogent, while acknowledging and accommodating the infinite variability that we find in real-world instances of addiction.
Chapter Four — The Cells of a Self
A superorganism is an organism made up of living beings. Multi-celled animals such as ourselves are, in a meaningful sense, superorganisms; beings made up of cells which are themselves living beings. Similarly, we as individuals are constituent members of larger “selves” — and many of those larger selves are subject to the thrall of addiction; to the enchantments of the shortcut of control.
Chapter Five — America’s Fireworks
In this chapter we visit the superorganism of the United States of America during a time of optimal enchantment, when the addictive world-view was becoming deeply embedded in the American psyche — the years immediately following WWII.
Addiction is all about moving from fulfillment of longings to pain.
The double-entendre of the section heading, “dissolutions,” is very much intended. Over time the solutions to the problem of self provided by control begin to dissolve — to diminish in efficacy. Meanwhile, there is an accompanying deterioration of the integrity of the “self” that has embraced the control solution, leading to a state of being dissolute (“lacking in moral restraint; degenerate, degraded, dissipated;” etc.).
Chapter Six — Goodbye Sky
Alcohol gave me wings to fly, then it took away the sky.
There is a natural history of progression in addiction. We watch that process play out in vignettes from the lives of the quartet we met in Chapter Two, stories from clients in my practice, and from my personal history. We find that the fulfillments central to the original enchantment are symmetrically betrayed; that each “promise” becomes its opposite. And finally, we see how, in late-stage progression, the imperative to maintain the addiction eventually becomes equal to, or greater than, the will to maintain physical survival.
Chapter Seven — Indispensable Catastrophe
Hitting bottom. It is perilous, wrenching, deeply disruptive, life threatening — and, profound. Indeed, it is precisely because this state of being is so unsparing — it leaves no wiggle room — that it can catalyze transformations which are otherwise inaccessible. When one encounters the hitting bottom experience, one is fully, completely immersed in an essential truth regarding their life; a culmination of a mode of being which has bankrupted.
We examine the hitting bottom event from three complimentary perspectives; three angles on the hologram. These are:
- » Hitting bottom is the intersection of pain and understanding
- » Hitting Bottom is the ownership of powerlessness
- » Hitting bottom is when you are no longer willing to live with the person you have become.
While each of these renderings sheds a revealing light on this momentous event, the last most successfully conveys the fact that hitting bottom is, above all else, an existential crisis.
Chapter Eight — The Disenchantment of America
Applying the understandings developed earlier in this section to America, we pick up where we left off in Chapter Five. After the decade-long “high” following America’s triumphant conclusion of WWII, things began to fall apart, beginning, arguably, with the rude awakening of Sputnik. Historical and cultural highlights illustrate addictive progression in the superorganism of America. We also review the presence of addictive traits, thinking and behaviors in the series of American Presidencies since WWII, beginning with Truman’s, and culminating with George W. Bush’s — incontestably the most addictive presidential administration of modern times. We note that Bush’s claim of personal “sobriety” is more than merely ironic, but typifies the Orwellian linguistic contortions that characterize late-stage progression. The chapter closes with descriptions of how America’s hitting bottom process is already well underway, heralding possibilities ranging from apocalyptic to redemptive — and various scenarios combining “all of the above.”
Sobriety is all about moving through pain, to fulfillment of longings.
Why use the word “resolution” to describe sobriety? Because the word “recovery” suggests regaining something we once had. In the case of a disease, for example, once the disease is cured we are restored to a prior state of health. But the disease construct is not our model here. We’ve seen above how a misplaced trust in control leads to the downward spiral of addiction. Sobriety, then, is about resolving — literally, re-solving — the problem of self which had seemed to be brilliantly solved by strategies of control during the enchantment phase of the addictive process. In sobriety we relocate our trust through a process of healing and growth involving five stages, or levels. This is not recovery, a return to old familiar ground, but rather discovery; an ongoing odyssey into the three perennial mysteries of self, of choice — and of love.
This section also introduces us to AA, described by its co-founder as “ an utter simplicity which encases a complete mystery.” We find that the familiar association of AA with the disease label is more atavistic than essential, and that AA has a great deal to teach us about the re-solving process. AA is not the only possible road to sobriety. It is, however, widely traveled, well known — and especially instructive for our purposes in this book.
Chapter Nine — Stark, Raving Sober
In the beginning, the resolution of addiction, the path of sobriety, is by no means a settling into a state of balanced reasonableness, but rather a coming out of pain, darkness and confusion, into — pain, darkness and confusion! Sobriety is coming to terms with what is often called by AA members “Life on life’s terms.” This awakening into sobriety — into wholeness — is by turns harsh and tender, exalting and deflating, integrating and annihilating, illuminating and confounding. Sometimes it is all of these things at once. Hence, “stark, raving sober.” In the earliest stages of sobriety our focus tends to be on the first two of the five levels of trust. These are, in simple language, “I am,” and “I can choose.”
Chapter Ten — Guidelines & Allies
Trustworthy guidelines, and a community of allies. These are the “must haves” for resolving addiction. But so often guidelines becomes rules; allies become cops and/or bosses. Then we’re back in the world of control, and the work of sobriety is compromised, sometimes beyond salvation. We will see how these confusions often manifest in the program and fellowship of AA, which is a source of extraordinary wisdom, but also subject to all kinds of abuse and misuse. Warts and all, though, AA is potentially an ideal ground for developing the third level of trust; “ I can be loved.”
The famous “twelve steps” of AA point us in useful directions, and disclose some provocative surprises. For starters, after the first seven words of Step One, there is no mention of alcohol, or drinking. As one source has it, “Alcoholism is 3% alcohol, and 97% ism.” The steps are about the “ism” of addiction; about learning how to abandon control, accept responsibility — and embrace and celebrate life, moment by moment.
Chapter Eleven — Sobriety “A Love Affair”
Acceptance, embrace, and celebration. This is love. It is this simple, and this difficult: sobriety — “moving through pain to fulfillment of longings” — is about love; about learning to inhabit love as we deal with “life on life’s terms.” Indeed, the last two levels of trust read “I am loved,” and then, excising one letter, “I am love.” Side-stepping the pitfalls of sentimentality and romanticism, we explore the rigors of authentic love, and find it to be both a product and an agent of transformation. We see how love differs from control-based feelings with which it is often confused, such as loyalty.
The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness the energies of love. And on that day for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.
Chapter Twelve — Which Evolution?
The word “evolution” can have three different meanings; we are using all of them here. There is, of course, the non-directional, ends-neutral evolution of Darwinism. This is quite distinct from notions of evolution as being directional — as being “headed somewhere,” or “reaching.” The latter perspective is usually framed in spiritual terms. Pierre Teilhard De Chardin’s paraphrased quote, above, offers one view of such an evolutionary stage. As well, the term “evolution” can refer to progress along a line of potentiality. In this last case a person may be seen to be more or less evolved along any number of axes; moral, spiritual, physical, intellectual, etc.
Each of these three meanings of evolution is relevant to addiction — and vice versa; addiction is shaped by, and contributes to, all of these evolutionary scenarios. The seeming contradictions between the directional and non-directional perspectives will be harmoniously accommodated, albeit not “resolved” or reconciled. (Throughout the book we find that the creative and graceful accommodation of paradox is a signature feature of sobriety.)
Chapter Thirteen — Sobering Gaia
In this chapter we pan back, and view the entire earth — Gaia — as a superorganism. We humans tend to aggrandize ourselves, and talk about our assaults on the integrity of the present ecological balance as though we might be killing Gaia — making the earth uninhabitable for all life forms. This is an extravagant conceit. However, Gaia has gone through dramatic transitional stages, during which the ecological stasis has shifted radically, sometimes obliterating the vast majority of species living at a given time. Humans are presently on course to have an impact which may well rival some of these major extinction events.
Overall we can trace an evolutionary planet-wide trajectory toward higher levels of complexity; greater degrees of incorporation, of wholeness. Gaia’s current evolutionary experiment with self-conscious will, embodied conspicuously in the human species, is heading for an abrupt termination, unless humanity can achieve a critical shift in consciousness — can, in simple language, sober up. Using concepts and understandings developed in preceding chapters, this chapter traces the course of addictive progression in the Gaia superorganism, explores the concept of “hitting bottom” in a planetary/ecological context, and makes it clear that “sobriety” and “utopia” are not synonyms. Even in a best-case scenario, we have a rocky road ahead of us. Sobriety is about the qualities of character and spiritual well-being we bring to the journey; it is assuredly not about some guaranteed trouble-free happy ending.
Chapter Fourteen — Beacons
What do South Africa, AA, the Amish, Grameen Bank, Wikipedia and Tai Chi have in common? They all exemplify aspects of what sobriety looks like — how it can manifest — in the larger and smaller “superorganisms” in which we participate. The path of sobriety is most brilliantly illuminated not by eloquent words, but by the living examples of those who have traveled along it some distance ahead of us. This chapter introduces us to several such “beacons,” and concludes with descriptions of the kinds of measures we can take, as individuals, and in the many nested levels of community in which we participate, to enhance the prospects for sobriety on a planetary scale.