Progress, not perfection

You’re right, it has been a long time since I’ve written. Because I have yet to develop healthy coping skills, I spend most of each day trying to negotiate between warring factions in my brain. This is good news, because it means that I’m relying less on unhealthy coping skills, most notably drinking (which I’m not doing at all).

I guess you could say I’ve made “progress” but have not achieved “perfection.” I’ve been fond of this repeated line from Chapter Five of Alcoholics Anonymous—a chapter for which I otherwise have almost no use at all—because it suggested acknowledgment that our struggles with addictive behavior are neither unusual nor something to be ashamed of. The mention of perfection never sat well for me, especially since the phrase puts the relation between progress and perfection in an almost certainly Christian frame of reference.

But yesterday, something dropped inside my muddled head. “Progress” implies direction. Toward what? There are only a few options, and unfortunately the one implied most obviously in the phrase is perfection—exactly the state the sentence denies is the goal. And isn’t that kind of thinking already part of the problem of addiction? Isn’t the desire for perfection, or for more, at the heart of it?

Rather than strain my interpretation by assuming too much, I’ll offer some other targets of recovery progress that I hear frequently in meetings. From time to time a member will say they seek contentment or even happiness, but more often I hear growth. In active addiction, I sought a numbing quasi-contentment, a sort of pleasure in place of happiness, and always a growth in at least one thing: the amount of alcohol I consumed.

I have long been suspicious of moral, medical, and spiritual suggestions that I should aim for growth, flourishing, or thriving. My HMO, Kaiser Permanente, had posters all over the hallways of their facilities commanding subscribers to thrive, featuring all manner of obviously well-paid and suspiciously enthusiastic models engaging in various activities to, you know, thrive. (I did my best to keep to a muttering my replies of “Fester! Wallow!”)

In our context, these concepts of a good life are struck by the die of capitalist/protestant ideology. They propose a model of life pursuing happiness, where happiness is a stand-in for the capitalist/protestant virtues of accumulation of material and spiritual wealth, and in which each individual, equal to every other and free to pursue happiness, is also responsible for their own state of being. (Re-consider the Kaiser corridors: every few feet another framed station of the cross conveys to you the penitent how Kaiser suffered for your health sins, and how you may yet thrive. But I’ll leave that aside.)

Growth, thriving, flourishing, removed from their biological sense, need some object to make them intelligible. What grows? Into what? What flourishes? As what? The simplistic answer is the ideological answer: the individual is the one who grows, flourishes, and thrives. But the only sense in which “growth” (or flourishing, or thriving) is in itself good is if the object is nothing but growth itself—that is, accumulation. As most of us with bodies will be able to understand upon reflection, for a body, accumulation is not, in itself, a good life condition.

Flourishing and thriving likewise refer strictly to an individual life, rather than a communal life, and suggest that the individual’s continuous good living is the object of every individual’s life. The ecosystem in which that is said to be the case is the artificial ecosystem of capitalism, and even in that ecosystem, it is notably impossible for every individual to flourish. In any biological system, flourishing is part of life, but so is dying.  Flourishing and thriving without end is a disturbingly capitalist notion of the good life of an individual.

Living things grow to a point, reproduce, metabolize, and then die. At this point in my life, the only biological imperatives left to me are metabolism and death, so in that sense, that’s what I ought to be doing.

By the way, if you’re perplexed by the capitalist/protestant ideological analysis here, check out Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s chapter on “The Culture Industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Marx’ Capital, especially Volume 1.

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