One prism to view our culture through is the prism of addiction. In his book O Brave New Church Mark Stibbe compares our culture’s behaviour to that of an addictive person.
Our culture does not neccesarily overtly praise addiction, but we only have to look at the lives of its most lauded citizens to see the power of addictive behaviour. In the past PR guru’s covered up the addictive behaviour of celebrities, but now the young and blonde celebutant set in Hollywood wears their addictive behaviour as a badge of honor.
However this plague of addiction points to a deeper sore upon the Western soul.
Billy Wilder’s Academy award winning 1945 film The Lost Weekend, is considered a classic of the film noir genre. It is also considered a classic study of addictive behaviour in the form of alcoholism.
The film tells the story of Don Birnam, an out of work writer. Don is good looking, charming, intelligent and urbane. He was a gifted student, who was expected to conquer the writing world. However we find Don not conquering the publishing world, but engaged in a deadly battle with his addictive nature.
Don is filled with the angst that so many feel in the modern world. He cannot reconcile his insecurity and self-hatred with his talent and gifts. He says in the film that he cannot live a nine to five life of quiet desperation like so many others.
So he tries to fill this existential void in his life with booze, he treats his cosmic lostness with self medicating drink. He knows that on the outside he looks the goods, he has a loving girlfriend and supportive brother. But he is torn apart by just how horrible he feels about himself on the inside, so he drinks and keeps drinking. All the while become more and more overtaken with shame. He acts terribly, steals, and cheats on his girlfriend.
When questioned about his behaviour, Don tells his girlfriend that there are two Don’s, the Don who everyone loves, and looks up to, and Don the drunk. Don the drunk throws his talent away, he hurts those who love and help him.
In his book The Private Adam Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, observes that as a society we like Don have a split personality. As a culture our public selves have achieved all kinds of victories in the fields of science, art and technology. Compared to other cultures throughout history we have built an incredible civilization, when we view it through the lens of public achievement.
However whilst we as a culture have achieved outward victories, inwardly we are falling apart. We are addicted to drugs and alcohol, to domestic violence and Internet porn. Behind closed doors, loneliness reigns, families and marriages disintegrate, and depression and mental illness abounds.
How could it be that we can do so well on the outside yet so poorly on the inside? Are we like Don Birnam, outwardly intelligent and attractive, yet inwardly lost and lonely? Is our addictive behaviour is a self medication to sooth our spiritual pain?
Uniting the two sides
Rabbi Boteach points to the book of Genesis to show us a way out of this problem. Boteach notes that Genesis gives us two creation accounts of Adam, both which represent a side of our human natures. The first story speaks of what Boteach calls the public Adam. The public Adam is created in God’s image, he is God’s representative on earth, he is given the broad mandate to subdue the earth. The second story gives us what Boteach calls the private Adam, the Adam who is created by God;s breath, who is linked to Eve relationally, who is called to cultivate and nurture Eden.
We have the public Adam: Daring, outward, with grand visions and mandates.is
We have the private Adam: Relational, inward, nurturing.
We see different people who reflect these two sides to being human. Some take the path of the public self, the achieve great things, change the world, yet internally the fall apart, they are overcome by inner demons of insecurity, they neglect their families and inner life. Then we have those who are relationally connected, they spent hours connecting with their feelings and sense of self, yet they are mired in navel gazing, they never dream of changing the world, they take the talents and gift that the creator has given them and lock them in the cupboard.
Boteach notes that one type of self is not better than the other. He write that the reason that there are two accounts in Genesis is the two stories reflect the two different sides to human nature. The goal Boteach writes is to bring the two sides into harmony and balance. To achieve both private and public victories.
We see this kind of balance most clearly in the life of Christ, who’s mandate was to save humanity, yet who also approached his inner spiritual life with the same importance. He was able to preach the sermon on the mount as a mandate to humanity, yet he could also could be in close relationship with his disciples and family. He is the perfect balance of the two sides of humanity.
Struggle as Gift
At the end of The Lost Weekend Don decides that the only way to end his misery is to end his life. His girlfriend, pleads with him not to kill himself, she asks for a miracle, and a miracle arrives in the form of a friend returning Don’s type writer which he had sold to a pawn shop in order to fund his weekend bender. Don’ salvation occurs as he finally realizes that he must write about his addiction, to turn his burden into a book for others who wish to beat their own alcoholism. Don realises a key spiritual truth, he sees the link between public and private victories. His suffering can be turned into a gift to help others, as he unites the two sides of himself.
This is an act of evangelism: one of the greatest gifts Christians can give to the world, is to use our shortcomings and failings, and to turn them into private victories, showing a culture that is addictted the way to be truly human.