Terminal Uniqueness

To addicts in recovery, we are made aware that the real disease of addiction is called “Terminal Uniqueness,” that age-old quest to prove myself better, worse, or otherwise different than you. It is entirely ego-driven, and it effects people in ways that are both observable to others and deeply-known by the sufferers. Its most damaging symptom is that it results in our separating from others and isolating, because it validates the internal belief that I am somehow unique. The word itself means alone in whichever class we pick, and that is what leads to all sorts of behavior that undermines our self-worth.

I’ve written about this before, but I need to take a slightly different tact today.

I can get away with presenting this as an illness inclined towards addicts, but the truth is it’s rampant in our culture, especially today when we have so much leverage in determining our own brands. Yup, that’s what we call crafting a sellable self for others to consume.

You can find it in discussions of race or poverty today. It’s all over political arguments. You can certainly find it on social media everywhere. You can find it on “Only Fans” (BTW, parents, do you know if your son or daughter has an Only Fans page?) among those who take their clothes off and do nasty things to make a buck while in isolation. Take a look at the patrons, for example, of Walmart, where a particular form of uniqueness can be found in the way people dress. Pick just about any issue, and you’ll find it stuffed with the masks and fallacious imagery of those who offer support or disagreement. Wealthy people have their own ways of standing out, but it depends on your point-of-view.

Our culture is flooded with the unspoken cry, “Dig me,” and its institutions are designed to take advantage of the disease.

  • Finance: You need money to reach your objective. We can help.
  • Marriage: You need the right “partner” to be all you can be. We can help.
  • Medicine: You need your health for your unique journey. We can help.
  • Mental Health: You need to determine how far you can go with this. We can help.
  • Religion: You need us to make sure you have a right relationship with God. You want God’s blessing, right? We can help.
  • The Law: You need to make sure you don’t cross the wrong lines in your effort to be YOU. We can help.
  • Education: We can put you on the right path for your unique objective.

These groups represent the status quo in Western life, the aristocrats, the one percent. We are the hamsters on their wheels. And so we plot and plan. We try things on to see how they fit. We organize ourselves around our self-image and fine tune it before heading out to make a name for ourselves. I mean, it’s the American way, right?

So it has always been and will always be, unless there is a righteous rebellion.

We’ve gotten so far downstream in this effort today that we’re no longer able to even consider how alike we really are.

“But my husband…”
“But my upbringing…”
“But my abuse…”
“But my bad luck…”
“But my illness(es)…”
“But my injury…”
“But my situation…”

Can we please stop our complaining?

We find excuses everywhere to deny our nature as garden-variety human beings. It seems there’s just no future in being just one in the crowd. Who wants to be “normal?”

Somewhere inside all the masks and afflictions, we are all the same.

My old shrink, Doctor Gagrat, told me once:

“Terry, people are like snowflakes. All different but all still snowflakes. Put some heat to them, and they melt. If I stab you with an ice pick, you’ll bleed, and your blood will be red. If I stab your psyche with a weapon, you also bleed.”

This is without a doubt a true statement, and my point today is that if we were each simply seeking our authentic selves, we’d be much better off as a species within the cosmos. Instead of seeking to stand out, we would be able to give our attention to being better human beings.

But who wants to be a better human? What does that do for ME?

  • Life is free to do our heavy lifting for us.
  • It allows us be imperfect, just like everybody else.
  • It buys us freedom.
  • It buys us peace and all of the spiritual fruit we believe is tied to the goals of our struggle.
  • It allows for unconditional love.
  • We cease striving for “our” place within the whole, for our place is already set.
  • Life gets remarkably easy to live, for we’re in sync with it instead of fighting against it.
  • Things go wrong, of course, but we’re able to place them in the proper perspective.

The real idiocy of this disease is that it’s so incredibly useless. It functions as a yoke attaching us to a life of constant struggle. You wonder why people can’t sleep? The subconscious mind doesn’t shut down when attempting to sleep, because it’s way too active trying to plan the next steps in the fantasy. If we could just all say “Enough!”

This ought to be the top priority of all religions and the most preached sermon across the globe. Only then will we learn the truth about what humanity is doing on this planet and the path for reaching our universal purpose.

We simply don’t have the power to sustain such artificiality.

The devil and the ego

Courtesy Slideshare.net

Courtesy Slideshare.net

We talk a lot about ego in AA, for the ego is the real enemy of any addict. Alcohol is but a symptom of our disease, the book says. The real problem with alcoholism is the “ism,” which stands for “I, self, me.” I’ve heard many people refer to their minds as “a dangerous place, because I’m not alone in there.” In fact, learning to separate those voices and identify especially the voice of your ego is one of the most valuable tools in addiction treatment and in psychology itself.

It comes as a surprise to most that our thoughts are provided by different characters in our minds. After all, our experience often is that there’s really only one “voice” in our heads, but in actuality, there are — or at least can be — many. Separating them and understanding each’s purpose is a lifetime study, but it’s remarkably rewarding, for the ability to shut down negative thoughts becomes a simple practice of ignoring that particular voice. I’m often reminded of the biography of mathematical genius John Nash by Sylvia Nasar “A Beautiful Mind.” Nash suffered from schizophrenia and was able to help himself by isolating those voices and ultimately ignoring them. Nash may have been an extreme case, but the point of those voices is very useful on the path to self actualization.

Freud was the first to identify the ego as “the part of the psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts.” The psychological world has gone far past that simple understanding. In the mid-twentieth century, psychiatrist Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (TA) introduced the concept of “ego states,” and the work of Don Carter has taken that even further. Carter’s “Thawing” book series helped me in my own self study. Dr. Berne’s TA work was influenced by a seminal thought of Freud’s, that the human personality is multi-faceted.

These works all influenced me, but none moreso than The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behavior, the 1988 book by Craig Nakken. Nakken’s little book (120 pages) is packed with original thinking and states that the personality of addicts is also multi-faceted: The Self and The Addict. The Addict very closely resembles The Little Professor ego state, but Nakken paints a remarkable picture of an inner war between The Self and The Addict. Suicide, he writes, is a defensive act of homicide wherein The Self finally kills The Addict. This is a remarkably accurate portrayal of what takes place inside the active mind of one so lost in the sea of conflicting inner thoughts that she can’t distinguish between right and wrong.

C.S. Lewis viewed the mind as multi-faceted in his remarkable “The Screwtape Letters” that described the efforts of an experienced demon attempting to teach a youngster how to best influence his “client” to turn away from thoughts of God. It’s the same internal struggle described by Nakken.

In my view, these kinds of conflicts are evident throughout history and literature, although the writers didn’t necessarily speak in this language. This goes all the way back to the Bible, which is a book about “regular” human beings and how they responded to inner voices often falsely depicted as external. There’s nothing sinister about it. It’s simply human beings attributing a “holy” sacredness to these stories that is not justified by the stories themselves. The booming voice of God shouting from the sky — like a hovering aircraft with a megaphone — is more wonderful and fits the story better than some guy who’s “only” touched the internal voice of the Creator.

Was David’s lust for Bathsheba a thought from his Self or his Ego?

Then there’s the story of Jesus in the wilderness. The story goes that “the devil appeared unto Him” and tempted him three times. Rather than assign this to some creature with red skin and a pitchfork that just happens to show up, let’s put on our inner voice glasses and take a different look at what it means to have the devil “appear unto” Jesus. Think. Here’s this fully human person whose been fasting for many weeks. He’s starving, so he says to himself, “You know, self, you could change that rock into bread and satisfy that hunger, right?” Jesus, however, recognizes that voice and quotes scripture to it.

This is exactly what psychology is trying to pin down here in the twenty-first century. We go about our lives with multi-faceted personalities, every single one of us. Nobody’s unique. We’re all just garden variety human beings with clay feet. Nobody’s perfect. If the fall of humankind was about anything, it was about the addition of this other voice into our heads and the bad behavior it brought with it. Annual sacrifices atoned for the behavior of the Jews, but what did the Christ accomplish, if not the promise of a life with authority over that voice? It doesn’t happen automatically when somebody “accepts Jesus.” The work has already been done, and knowledge of that authority is just the beginning anyway.

The religions of the book have distorted this by emphasizing the behavior (a.k.a. “sin”) instead of the cause. Bob Newhart did a wonderful take on this with his “Stop it” therapy sketch, but as any addict will tell you, emphasizing behavior does little to bring about the psychic change of recovery. That requires work, effort that I think actually belongs to the church in our postmodern world, because the solution, it turns out, is a spiritual one. We need to be talking about how we overcame those voices, sharing our stories with each other rather than preaching from some hierarchical platform that exists primarily for itself. The brilliant Clay Shirky noted a few years ago that the role of institutions is to preserve the problem for which they are the solution, but that is becoming increasingly apparent to those who’ve relied on the institutions of modernity to support the pursuit of happiness, including the church. It’s not working anymore, and to those who can reinvent themselves will go the prize of relevancy in the centuries to come.

As the incomparable Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones used to say, “The devil made me do it.” There’s a deep truth to that but one that the institutional Christian church is unable to see.