Self-Abuse

You’ve done it. You know what I mean, spent some alone time, drawn a long bath, handled business. You’ve done it because, statistically, every human being has done it. (Yes, even the girls. Yes, everybody. Fine, okay, not you, I believe you, you’re a very special snowflake. Still, statistically…)

Did you feel bad about it? Statistically, although this is only based on my own research, everyone in Evangelicaland has done this too. Maybe we were lucky to find a pastor or parent who disabused us, literally dis-abused us, of our guilt early on. I know many though, especially men, who spent years of their life with unnecessary guilt. Maybe some of you, like I did for so long, still waste hours in the climax and denouement of pleasure and shame.

Well let me first make clear why this is unnecessary and wasted time.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death — 2 Corinthians 7:10

Maybe you are just special, and I have never met anyone like you. But I have never met any one who desisted from their efforts either, ahem, manual labor or group projects, because they spent enough time thinking sufficiently furiously about baby Jesus crying about it. Which means I have never met anyone who expressed a godly grief over their sexuality. This seems to be a difference in kind not degree too; I don’t think Paul is suggesting that not being sorry enough will kill you. Being sorry in a way that doesn’t produce an actual repentant change, doesn’t even manage to escape the sorrow, is a deadly version of grief. But I spent years of my life, alone and with others, in this worldly sorrow.

So rather than implying the phrase’s usual referent (insert masturbatory joke about a word whose referent is itself: self-referential) the title of this post “self-abuse” refers to this peculiar addiction of evangelical sorrow. For it seems to me the more powerful and dangerous activity, the more likely to leave one’s spiritual sight in blindness or cover over one’s sensitive hands in a numbing coat of fur (I don’t know if anyone even gets those references anymore, and I kinda hope to God no one does). As an atheist I don’t anymore have a terribly hard time resisting my urges when I choose to. Which implies pretty strongly for me that this worldly sorrow I was trapped in actually made the “addiction” worse.

An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and downright needing it. Many addictions, from exercise to letter-writing, are pretty benign. But something is malignantly addictive if (1) it causes real problems for the addict, and (2) it offers itself as relief from the very problems it causes. — David Foster Wallace

They say that quitting tobacco is what really makes you addicted. Leaving for a little while and coming back makes it that much sweeter. The mixture of pleasure and shame makes you that much more present in each cigarette. I don’t know if it’s true, but I do hear more people talk about quitting with a cigarette in their hand than at any other time. There’s a commitment that can cause you to actually leave an addiction. But then there’s a sorrow that not only can’t push you to leave, but devolves the habit into a much more malignant addiction. This sorrow generates the idea of the addiction (1. causing the very problem for the addict) and presents itself as a false path to leaving (2. offering itself as the only relief for the problem it caused).

So Christian men and women are wasting their time in a habit that is neither as godly as they think it is, nor as effective at curbing their habit as even their own experience shows, and may itself be a much darker addiction than they believe they are fighting. But our friend DFW says that to be an addiction, you must like the activity and go beyond into almost needing it. Do we really need or even like our shame?

There’s a reason we have all, statistically, played patty-cake. We’re bodies. And I don’t like to think of myself as a body. That’s not the type of personality I have. It’s not the type of Christianity I grew up in. I’m a mind or a heart or a spirit or a soul. The body is just an empty vessel. So they said. I have to do something to reinforce the primacy of my mind and soul, when the body, almost of its own accord, reaches out and grasps what it wants (stop snickering!) The instinctive anticlimactic moment of sorrow is a particular sacred liturgy that despises the experienced truth of the body’s actions for the denied desires and intentions of the soul. But in that liturgy, it only increases the distance between the body and soul.

Atheists shouldn’t preach. But from youth group days to college group days, Evangelical boys spend a lot of time talking about how often they’ve flogged a bishop. Usually exclusively under this liturgy of sorrow. There were lots of reasons I stopped believing in God. But if there was one reason I came to despise the very idea of God, it’s because I had spent so long practicing such a particular God. And even though I know perfectly well it’s unbiblical, illogical, self-defeating, addictive, and stupid, in my head God will forever look like this: