March 04, 2016
Many years ago I became interested in the literature on virtues, both ancient and modern. “Virtue” is not part of the everyday spiritual language in 12-step culture; however, the concepts, challenges, and gifts found in the history of thought on human virtues are in fact profoundly relevant. In this brief essay, I’d like to focus on one virtue that seems particularly germane and its specific recovery connections.
In his collection of essays, Dispatches from the Front, Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that novels provide a way to encounter virtue through narrative, illuminating social aspects that are otherwise difficult or even impossible to convey. In particular, I find his proposals about constancy as a social virtue compelling. Constancy might also evoke words like “solidarity” and “fidelity.” It would be like walking with a person you know into a dark alley, sensing trouble, and knowing that you do not need to check to see if your companion has stayed with you. Their constancy – and your own – is part of the larger story of your relationship. Constancy requires that kind of depth; a past that informs the present and provides rare certainty as one looks to apparently fearful futures.
It is easy to attack the person suffering from addiction for their shortcomings in constancy. Our narratives include not showing up when we were expected, appearing, but being less than present because of our impairment or its aftermath, and harming even the most sacred of our relationships.
What constancy also provides us is a way of understanding addiction’s darkest side. You see, constancy is not so much lost in addiction - at least as I see it - but rather it is instead displaced into the wrong fold. In addiction, we see a theft of constancy; something that is robbed which belongs to our community, our self, and to the G-d of our understanding. This extraordinary human capacity which would make of us noble and valued becomes chained to our offending behaviors, whatever they might be. Hijacked in addiction, our natural inclination to bond with others is given over into fierce, yet hurtful, attachments that make a mockery of what is otherwise one of the greatest aspects of the human story – our capacity to manifest steadfast love.
Consider how powerful the path of recovery is in this light. Recovery invites us on a quest that seeks the restoration of nobler constancy in our lives. In recovery, we surrender to the truth of our captivity to unhealthy, harmful attachments. We come to find and offer ourselves into a spiritual allegiance and supportive alliances, working with power beyond ourselves, and taking specific guidance to journey slowly through honesty to humble amends. Restored constancy emerges, one day at a time - in daily inventory, in prayer and meditation, in consistency of practice, and in loving service. We find ourselves and are found again; the story comes home. It is never a solitary triumph, nor a lonely destination – if that is where you are, you have not made it yet.
Constancy is not the only virtue of interest in recovery, nor Hauerwas the only voice to which it is worth listening. Josef Pieper, in his complex, short work, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, identifies prudence as first among the virtues. This is a great recovery thought. It makes me think of the upside down slogan, “Think Think Think,” found on so many clubhouse walls. And the apostle Paul, in the much cited passage in Corinthians 13, finishes his discourse on love with the observation, “And now, faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.” Can we not hear this as recovery’s promise and call?
For me, then, “virtue” belongs in the recovery lexicon – not necessarily in the strict sense of any particular writer or tradition, but because this idea, both in singular and plural, illuminates what we readily call “spiritual awakening.” Recovery at its best is marked by these sorts of qualities: by prudence, constancy, faith, hope, and love. We grow in virtue, imperfectly, but also surely, one day at a time.