Laying blame won’t win the game

I was just in a conversation about pornography addiction and the tendency of addicts to look outside themselves for people to blame.

• “If only my dad hadn’t left his Playboys where I could find them.”

• “If only those other kids hadn’t talked about it so much when I was young and curious.”

• “If only my religion teachers had better articulated why it was wrong.”

• “If only the ISPs would do more to block porn.”

• “If only the porn industry weren’t so aggressive in its marketing.”

• “If only the government would do more to restrict the porn industry.”

• “If only my job weren’t so stressful.”

• “If only women would notice me more.”

• “If only my wife were more loving.”

For me, I think part of the reason I wanted to blame others was that it seemed to be the only alternative to blaming myself. My thinking was as follows:

Whereas I am using pornography and can’t seem to stop even though I believe it is wrong and unhealthy, either I must be a bad person or someone else must be responsible.

No one wants to believe himself to be a bad person, so naturally the alternative seemed more appealing. And to some extent, the actions of others do play a role in making pornography addiction more likely. But even if that’s true, knowing that one’s addiction may be partly someone else’s fault does absolutely nothing to make it better.

Another problem is the assumption that if I am addicted to using pornography, I must be a bad person. Perhaps only those who have struggled with addiction get how hard it is to fight and can understand the inner conflicts that emerge during withdrawal. An addict can sincerely want to change but still be overwhelmed with urges, and even worse, a fear that those urges will never go away unless satisfied. It’s like having two voices in your head, one saying, “No, don’t!” and another saying “Oh, just once more!” or, worse, “You can’t change. Just give up already.” Sometimes it’s not so much that the addict doesn’t want to change; it’s that he doesn’t know how.

A pornography addict is not necessarily a hedonist whose only interest is carnal pleasure. Sometimes, pornography is a distraction from pain. My addiction started when I was a boy struggling with depression. Pornography wasn’t my first addiction; I was addicted to TV shows, computer games, action figures (playing with them and buying them), junk food and I don’t remember what else. A boy doesn’t know that what he has is depression; he knows that he feels miserable and that certain thing seem to relieve it, if only temporarily.

As an adult who recognized he had a problem, there were things I could do to address it. (I’ve discussed that elsewhere on this blog.) While I’ve been out of the cycle of pornography addiction for more than a year, I’ve come to the realization that my next step is learning to address the depression that’s always been lurking with in. I don’t know whether I will ever be totally free from that, but I am learning about the ways others cope with and manage it, and that’s what I’m now looking into.

My point is, my addiction was not made better by blaming myself or anyone else, nor will my depression be. What I need to look at is:

Where am I?
Where do I want to be?
What can I do to get there?

Once I figure that out, I can also ask, “How do I keep from ending up there again?” But there is no benefit in asking, “Whose fault is it that I was there in the first place?”

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Scrupulosity and the recovering porn addict

From my participation in a few different online discussion groups for recovering pornography addicts, I’m noticing a tendency of those in recovery toward scrupulosity. After years or even decades of habitually engaging in mortal sins related to pornography, the addict who is trying to recover operates in crisis mode, fearful that every furtive glance is an act of lust, an occasion of “adultery in his heart.”(Matt 5:28)

One might suppose that scrupulosity might be a good thing. After all, our goal should be to avoid sin, so how can being extra cautious be a problem?

Except that the recovering addict sets impossible standards for himself. He spots an attractive woman on the street. He thinks, Oh no! I’m LUSTING!, even though he hasn’t had a specifically lustful thought yet. I must redirect my attention to something else — that tree over there. No, I still see that attractive woman in the corner of my eye. No, wait, I’ll watch that old man in the corner. But I’m still thinking about that woman. I cannot allow myself to have an impure thought, like how much I’d like to … NO!

At this point, the addict feels so guilty for having noticed the woman that he begins to doubt whether he truly wants to change, whether he may have already committed a mortal sin, and whether he should perhaps just give up, which is exactly what God doesn’t want and what the devil is hoping for.

Recently I saw a post in which an addict expressed that he should just stop going to confession and making a mockery of the sacrament, since he keeps falling anyway. I urged him not to stop going him, reminding him that the shame he was feeling comes not from humility but from pride. It occurs to me that shame and and scrupulosity both, in these cases, stem from pride. The addict doesn’t want to admit how far he’s fallen, so shame keeps him from reaching out to God for mercy and grace. The scrupulous recovering addict doesn’t want to admit that there is a part of him that is still vulnerable to temptation, and so he overreacts and, in many cases, despairs and returns to his old ways.

I found myself exhibiting just this kind of scrupulosity as I recovered. Fortunately, I received great advice from a priest when I went to confession. He instructed me to pray for spiritual wisdom, and advised my to be realistic about the fact that I would sometimes notice women in a sexual way, but that it didn’t become a sin until I willfully engaged in those thoughts.

This is still a struggle for me, I have to admit. I notice attractive women, and particular body parts of those women, and sometimes I look for more than a few seconds. I catch myself and pull eyes away, but part of me wonders if I’ve already sinned and, if so, whether that sin was mortal. When it occurs to me that I might be scrupulous, a voice in my head says, “Or maybe you just do a lot of bad stuff and feel appropriately guilty.” So I can’t say I have all the answers yet.

I saw a couple of interesting articles on the subject of scrupulosity yesterday that I think are worth reading for anyone struggling with this:

“Ten Commandments for the Scrupulous”

“Are You Scrupulous?”

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So I was home alone today, not expecting anyone else to come home. Suddenly I hear a key in the door. Seconds later the door opens. Initially I felt my chest tighten — I had no time to hide anything, and I’d taken no steps to cover up my tracks for what I’d been up to this morning. It was only a moment, but all I could think was, “Oh, crap!”

Then as my 18-year-old came through the door, I remembered. I didn’t need to hide anything. I hadn’t been UP to anything I shouldn’t have been, nor have I been in a very long time. The momentary panic was just a flashback to the days when I did have to constantly worry about being surprised. But, it reminded to be grateful for the fact that I am in a new place now, where I don’t have to hide what I’m doing. Praise the Lord!

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Playing the saxophone

I use an image of a saxophone as my avatar in some of the message boards that I participate in. Seeing it, one might guess that I’m a huge fan of saxophones, which I am, or that I’m some kind of expert saxophone player, which I most definitely am not. However, I do play the saxophone, and a practice session last night got me thinking about what the saxophone really represents for me.

I played in high school and was decent, but not great, for a high-schooler. Even though I had my own alto, the band director put me on tenor saxophone for symphonic band, due to the fact that we had better alto players, and she needed someone who could play confidently enough for first-chair tenor. For jazz band, on the other hand, a couple of the alto players would play tenor instead, and I’d get bumped to second- or third-chair tenor. So I was somewhere in the middle of the pack.

I loved playing the saxophone. I’d spend hours at home sometimes playing through some of my favorite songs for my own amusement. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the dedication to do the boring stuff, like memorizing scales and chords, learning to play through chord changes, sight-read complicated rhythms and transcribe tunes by ear. I liked playing the saxophone, but I wanted it to be fun and easy. So, by the time I got into college and went to try out for the jazz band there, I found myself up against guys who had done the dirty work I wouldn’t do. I pretty much gave up playing the sax at that point.

Last year I bought a sax and started playing again. I’m currently focusing on practicing the boring stuff to try get better at it, and I’m making some progress. But I’ll never be as good as if I’d spent the last 20 years practicing.

It leaves me with mixed emotions. I love that I’m making progress, and I find that I appreciate music more. I’m finding myself listening to and understanding music that used to be out of my reach, and, at the risk of sounding like a snob, less content with of the banal pop tunes that are out there.

But I also regret the time wasted on pointless things — especially pornography — that required no real effort and offered no opportunity for growth. That’s time I will never get back. All I can do is make the best of the time I have, and I mean to, but that won’t undo the damage I’ve done.

So, just as the sound of a saxophone can be bittersweet, so is playing it for me.

I imagine those of use who’ve been down the road of porn addiction (or embraced other destructive or pointless habits) all have our saxophones — opportunities we’ve missed because something else offered easier, more immediate gratification.  Yet, I’m finding that the sense of accomplishment that comes with those little movements of progress that come after many difficult hours of practice so much more satisfying than what any amount of pornography could have ever delivered.

Whatever your saxophone is, embrace it now, my friends. Take that challenge you’ve been avoiding. Force yourself to do those things you know won’t offer much pleasure at the moment but will be rewarding in the long run. Carpe diem.

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Do not feed the troll — avoiding pointless online debates

“Do not give what is holy to dogs,* or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” -Matthew 7:6

I had such a perfect comeback for someone the other day. I’d posted what I felt was a thoughtful, logical reply to a rather outrageous statement someone made in an online forum, only to have the person respond not with a counterargument to what I’d said but with a personal insult. Only, it was one of those insults formulated in such a way that SO easily could have been turned around on him.

It was like in Scrabble when your opponent opens up a triple-word space in line with a double-letter space, and you have that 10-point tile that fits perfectly into that spot. Or the quadruple jump in checkers. Its just such an easy opportunity that you can’t pass it up.

Except that something told me I needed to. Insulting Mr. Clever was only going to get Mr. Clever angry and wouldn’t serve anything but my ego. I tried to think of a more productive response, but then I realized there wasn’t one, because Mr. Clever had already demonstrated that he wasn’t there to discuss. The most productive thing I could do was just not reply.

This got me thinking about how the times I’ve let myself get sucked into pointless debates with who had already demonstrated their unwillingness to engage in anything constructive. I’m all for respectful exchanges of opinions, but there are certain tell-tale signs that you are dealing with a troll.

1) Personal attacks.

If you’ve made a well-reasoned argument, it is much easier for a troll to attack you instead your logic. Mr. Clever didn’t counter any points I’d made about one-night stands; he just brushed of the entire response with his attempt at wit. Others will resort to personal attacks on you, your faith, your country or political party. The only thing the troll doesn’t want to deal with is what you’ve actually said or written.

2) Changing topics

Again, most trolls can’t be bothered with addressing with what you say. Changing the subject gives them a way to avoid doing so. For example, if you are discussing the Church’s teaching on sex outside of marriage, the troll will suddenly want to talk about sexual abuse by priests. Don’t take the bait — as soon as you start putting the scandals into perspective and discussing how the Church has addressed the problem, this person shift the topic to the Crusades.

3) Waving a diploma.

If you’re discussing religion, the troll will tell you that he’s got three Ph.D.’s in World Religion from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. If it’s history, he has a doctorate in history as well. And medicine. He has degrees that you don’t have (so he says), and therefore he doesn’t need to address your arguments to tell you that you are wrong.

4) Quoting long, obscure passages.

The troll has done some reading, albeit from some questionable sources. This kind of troll is probably a conspiracy theorist of some kind and is attracted to books that no one else has heard of. After all, it’s tough to disprove the reliability of a source no one seems to know anything about.

5) The barrage of errors.

Troll will sometimes put a whole bunch of questionable or simply untrue statements together in a paragraph just to make the task of pulling his words apart to address them that much more of a pain.

He might write, “You Catholics have spent the last 1,500 years since your church was started manipulating the words of a man you say existed, worshiping his mother and blindly falling a pope whom you believe to be infallible in everything as he sends you on crusades to convert starving people in Third World countries at the sword.”

You could pull the sentence apart and address each faulty claim therein, but he’s already shown that he doesn’t care about making sense.

6) The endless debate.

If the troll is a regular on a certain board, pay attention to how long his conversations go. You’ll probably find they go on until people stop responding to him. Maybe he craves the attention. Or maybe he thinks that if he gets the last word, it means he’s won. If that’s the case, let him think that. Because if you waste your time with him, you can only lose.

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The problem with throwing out life preservers – not everybody wants one

Having struggled with pornography addiction for years before learning how to break free, it seems only natural to try to offer encouragement to others in the same predicament. I know what it’s like to feel like you need to stop using pornography, while at the same time feeling like you can’t. I know the shame and the struggle of trying to be two people — a good, moral person on the outside; a hedonist with no self-control on the inside.

And I remember wondering, over and over again, Will I ever be able to stop?

Part of the problem was that it seemed nearly impossible to find anyone who could tell me how to stop. A breakthrough for me was finding websites on which people shared how they had stopped. Knowing that others had stopped mean the world. Yes! Escape is possible!

Once I was able to break free of my own addictive cycle, I wanted to be one of those voices, encouraging others to let go of the porn and grab hold of the life that God has planned for them.

But that’s part of the problem. A lot of people want to let go of the porn, but don’t necessarily want to grab hold of the life that God has planned for them. They have realized that pornography has stood in the way of certain things they want, but what they want sometimes has little or nothing to do with God. Some want to give up the porn so that they can get over ED, for example, and increase their frequency of sex, not necessarily within the confines of marriage. Some are convinced that the idea of orgasms not being a part of daily life is far-fetched and unrealistic, and therefore try to let go of pornography, but continue to engage in self-stimulation.

Basically, they want to get off one dead-end street so they can go down another. They don’t really want to be told that God has something better for them, but that His “something better” may not involve daily orgasms. Start talking about God’s plan for human sexuality, and you are frequently dismissed as a preachy, brainwashed Christian.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me so much. At this time in our culture, the idea of limiting sexual intercourse to the context of marriage and in a form that is open to the possibility of life is seen by many as absurd. But then I think, Wait, in our struggles with pornography, we’ve tried the sex-whenever-we-want-it approach already, and we’ve seen how miserable it can make us. Should that give us a reason to listen to the people who were warning us against that approach in the first place?

For many, the answer seems to be, No. The may be ready to give up pornography, but they aren’t ready to consider that maybe human sexuality has a higher purpose than pleasure.

It occurs to me that in Luke 17:11-19, we read about the 10 lepers who were cured by Jesus, only one of whom “realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and … fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” (Luke 17:15-16)

A lot of porn addicts want to recover from their addiction, and many will succeed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean that they’ll want to know the One who makes all healing possible.

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St. Augustine and putting sin into perspective

Image I finally finished reading “Confessions” by St. Augustine, and, boy, is my brain tired. I looked at at least five different translations before settling on one by Sister Maria Boulding. This translation was in contemporary English, but not watered down the way one version I found was.

I’m not going to do a review or book report in this post. I wanted to focus on one particular idea that struck me from the book, regarding how we look at past sins. St. Augustine notes that while we feel remorse for the sins we committed, we also need to be grateful we didn’t even worse, because it was only by God’s grace that we didn’t, so we shouldn’t give ourselves too much credit.

It’s sometimes tempting to look at people who’s behavior was less self-destructive than mine and think, “At least I wasn’t THAT bad!” While there are more self-destructive things than porn addiction — addiction to certain drugs or actual sex with actual people, for example — the truth is, I probably stayed away from those things more because they were impractical for me than because I was to virtuous do them. I’d let go of virtue as a driving force in my life. I did what I wanted, and if I could do some good or avoid a particular evil in the process, that was a happy coincidence.

Once we’ve entered the realm of sin, especially mortal sin, we’ve basically established that it is not God’s will but our own that will drive our actions. At that point, all bets are off regarding what one will or won’t do — it just depends what temptations I encounter and whether I am willing to risk giving in to those temptations at the expense of whatever they might cost me.

At the same time, this also means that my sins don’t really make me worse than other sinners. Sometimes we can have a certain arrogance about our sins — “Sure, God forgives, but even He can’t forgive THIS!” The truth is, if He can forgive at all, He can forgive all.

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