The Personalist Project

Browsing through the library one day, I happened on a book about “soft addictions.” It belonged to the self-help genre, and I don’t remember what kind of treatment the author recommended, but it was an interesting idea: the causes and effects, not of physiologically addictive substances, but of relatively innocuous habits like overeating and nail-biting. (This was a long time ago, so electronics were not on the list, but I have no doubt they would be now.)

I thought of it the other day when I ran into two different videos making the rounds. They’re also about addiction, but they’re concerned with showing that certain addictions are “real” because they have a physiological basis or physiological effects, or both. I wondered: would they be less genuine if they remained on the spiritual or mental level, leaving no physical trace? Is the loss of freedom any less real in that case?


Thomas L. McDonald links to the first video

here, and, as he remarks:

The hard thing about social media is to use it without being used by it. I like it just fine to keep in touch with friends, family, and a network on fellow travelers in a variety of interests. It gives me a place to post pictures of my dog …

But it’s insidious, as I’ve pointed out before. It can draw us back again and again like the light that lures a moth until it beats itself to death.

The other was this trailer for the documentary "Fed Up":

(“the video the food industry doesn’t want you to see!”) It seems to be about sugar as the root of all evil. I take that with a grain of salt: when it comes to the obesity epidemic, it’s not just the sugar, or the salt, or the processing, or the GMO’s or the carbs or the hours of sitting around staring at screens.  I don’t doubt they’re all terrible, but they all work together.

Still, it was interesting, the way the makers of "Fed Up" talked about the futility of relying on willpower.  I think they exaggerate, but it’s important to acknowledge that certain things really are addictive. If you’re in the throes of addiction, it’s precisely your free will that’s malfunctioning. You “turn it on” and nothing happens. What then?


It’s crucial to realize that there’s something going on, both psychologically and spiritually, besides a failure to try hard enough. This is not to counsel despair: if your will is weakened, that doesn’t mean you stop trying to strengthen it. But if you don’t know what you’re up against, you’ll always be disappointed by what sheer willpower can accomplish.

As my brother Joseph Prever writes here, about depression: 


what I have is essentially A Condition: I have to be careful with myself, the way a diabetic person has to be careful about what he eats.

Now, someone's depression may have a physical cause, or a partly physical cause, and it may certainly have physical manifestations. But that doesn't dictate one particular solution. There's a place for medication, for adjusting the way you eat, exercise, and pray. (Read the rest of Joseph's post to see how it works for him.) 


It can be useful to show scans of the brain's reactions (I'm not vouching for their accuracy, just using them as an example). And it can be useful to offer hard, physical evidence that, say, pornography’s effects are a lot like those of drugs. It can bring you a step closer to a solution.

But we're complicated creatures, and we can't always untangle the physical from the psychological from the spiritual, or the normal from the pathological, or the fallen "normal" from the real normal. It's not always clear whether an addiction is "soft" or "hard," physiological or "just in the mind." The best we can do, maybe, is to stay on guard agianst reducing them all to each other.

Then we might be able to regain some freedom.


Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Sep 15, 2014 9:07am

I've been reading a lot lately about alcoholism and related 12 step programs.

I few things stand out especially. 

1. Addictions cripplie us in our will, our moral agency. We cease to be captains of our own souls, as Oscar Wilde put it.

2. The first step of the solution is admitting that we've lost control. That is, we stop trying to succeed with will power.

3. The rest of the solution depends on three things: Asking for the grace of God and relying on, accepting the help of others, and committing ourselves to serve others in the same condition.

Look at how personalist all this is, and how like the gospel!

We are impotent to save ourselves. We have to turn to God and entrust ourselves to Him. But His way of working with us is through and with other persons, both fellow believers and unbelievers.

Persons are both individual and community. We are selves who need others, and who are called to give ourselves to others.

Seeing all this gives me hope and joy. Addictions seem to me a major modern path to redemption and reality.

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