"Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers.
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17
Last Monday during jail ministry, we talked about this reading, from Sunday 8/23. An inmate noted how just as the Israelites had the choice to serve whomever they wanted, today we still have that same choice: we can either choose to embrace or turn away from the false gods of power, money, fame, drugs, another person - all of the temptations which take the place of God but which are not him. The inmate shared an experience from his younger days, wherein he found himself professionally successful but empty inside, relying on drinking and heavy partying to give his life meaning. Alcohol was his god, and the thing to which he oriented his life. He gained fake friends and lost real ones, and eventually woke up one day and decided to give it up altogether before his life was too out of control. He's been sober for several years. It was a very personal and touching story, and characteristic of the very real way in which the inmates share their stories not just with us, but with each other.
The story reminded me of an experiment I did earlier this year with my own drinking habits. I call it an experiment because that's how I viewed it at the beginning, not expecting any deeper meaning. In January, after the holidays and at the beginning of a new year, I decided to give up drinking for an undetermined amount of time. Once I got rolling, I kept at it through Lent, so for around four months in all. During Lent I allowed myself a drink on Sundays if I felt like it, though by that time I didn't (funny how that happens). Otherwise, there was no drinking allowed.
This was motivated mostly out of curiosity, but also the creeping feeling that maybe I was relying on drink too much in social situations. I've never been one to come home and have a beer or a glass of wine each night, and I don't even go to happy hours all that often. But when I did drink, it was in social settings, and as embarrassing as it is to admit, it was to serve the dual purpose of overcoming social anxiety and because I didn't believe I could have a good time without it. However, given how infrequently I thought I drank, I figured it would be a pretty simple lifestyle change.
There were a few lessons I learned. The first was the hit my ego took when I realized how hard it actually was for me to stop that habit of drinking. In my mind, I rarely drank. Turns out I needed it more than I thought, and I had to sit and simmer in that feeling of self-denial and humiliation for the first couple weeks. Much to my surprise, I actually was dependent on alcohol to a certain degree. So then I had a new thought: what else am I kidding myself about?
Secondly, I noticed some friends stopped asking me to hang out. This surprised me because even though I wasn't drinking, that didn't mean I couldn't enter a bar or that I was no longer interested in having fun. Now this one was hurtful: I thought I had relationships built on the things real friendships are built on - love, trust, mutual understanding, shared values, etc. That was clearly not the case. That was the second lesson, and perhaps the beginning of an answer to what else am I kidding myself about.
Third: because I was not drinking but still going out, I was in the social situations which in the past would have made me want to pick up a glass of wine. Well, now I didn't have that choice. So, I had to talk to people about real things, sober, as myself. And guess what? It was fun, exhilarating and incredible. I know that sounds naive, but it was a new experience at that time. And again, the ego takes a hit even in admitting that. It's strange to know that I didn't think myself, as I exist, was enough to hold a conversation or to be able to enjoy myself, without the help of alcohol. It's pretty pathetic, actually. And yet I think it's a thought a lot of people operate from.
Now, going to parties was like a beautiful challenge which every time I met and surpassed. It was freeing; it was a sense of, "Okay, what's next?" I began to trust my judgment more. Not only that, but I began to see others more clearly for who they were, which is its own sign of respect. When you're drunk, you're not only seeing yourself through a distorted lens, but everyone around you, too. And then it bothered me less that I had lost some acquaintances along the way because I understood that looking at oneself (or life) sober can be difficult. Not everyone is ready for that. I think there is even a degree of defensiveness or protectiveness in that, too - this is what I can manage, don't ask any more of me.
Another benefit of this total sobriety was actually remembering what I did. I was waking up feeling great and having a productive day after a night out. If you've never had this experience, I don't think that will make sense, because when you drink, half the fun (supposedly) is remembering all the dumb, funny, witty, brilliant, embarrassing stuff you did the night before while intoxicated, and lamenting the degree to which you are hungover. Wasting the day away watching Netflix for six hours on the couch, suffering through a never-ending headache and dehydration, eating crappy Chinese food, it's like you take it for granted it's an inevitable part of drinking. It's almost like a competition - who feels the worst today? You? Oh, well you win, then, because that means you had the most fun (and were the wittiest, etc.).
Much to my surprise - and this was the most important lesson - real life is far more interesting than drunk life. I mean that without any irony or cuteness. Which is more interesting: talking to a guy when you're drunk and exchanging numbers (and whatever else follows) - or meeting someone sober, having a real discussion, finding out things you have in common, building a relationship (romantic or otherwise), all based on the merits of who you both are as people, rather than the temporary person you become when drunk? There is a world of difference between these two experiences. My ego is reluctant to tell you: I never bothered to put this together before the "experiment."
As I was observing these changes within myself, I had a great, big thought along the lines of - God didn't create drunk me. He created sober me. He gave me all the tools and abilities to exist, just as he made me, without the need for any enhancements along the way to bring out the "real" me. Real life is so much more interesting than drunk life because it is the life God intended us to live. All of the thoughts, experiences, emotions and personality traits that make me who I am were chosen by God, for me. To deny or change this, you may as well deny every bit of his creation. The trees aren't good enough, the birds aren't good enough, the flowers aren't good enough...I can fix them, because I know better.
I in no way believe alcohol is bad or evil, but I do believe using substances to obliterate our real selves in order to be liberated to something else, whatever that is, will never be an authentic way to live. It simply cannot be. It is a negation of who God created you to be; anxiety, flaws, lack of confidence, emotional baggage, neuroses and all. That's the real you. Why abandon it? Why mask it, or subdue it? It is still there when you wake up. Rather than run away from it, you have the option to come out and meet it, and perhaps even change it. In the very least, to try and love it with a real love.
I don't drink much anymore. The appeal is no longer there. However, I am endlessly fascinated by real life - by real love and relationships, and the way God works, the beauty of every day existence and the endless opportunities we have to meet other people in a very real way and grow. And opportunities to meet our real selves, as well: it is a never-ending wonder to learn the things I am capable of. True freedom will never be found in substances. True freedom comes only from building a relationship with God and keeping him at the center of your life and watching how he works for you and in you. And not only that, but building a relationship with yourself, one built on an understanding of the uniqueness God has very specifically endowed you with. This is what's real, and this is all you get to take with you. If we busy ourselves with seeking distraction, we will miss what God intended us to be. Thank God I woke up to that fact.
There are so many false gods to serve in this life and day after day we get to make the choice and learn the lesson - who will I serve?