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Step One

Parent Message

Admit that we are powerless over this addiction and that our lives have become unmanageable.

When I was a boy, I had the good fortune of being mentored by a remarkable and remarkably quiet man, the Reverend Bill Brown. Bill’s path to the ministry had led through the gutter. He had been a derelict, hard core, waking in vomit, at the very bottom. Alcoholics Anonymous had delivered him to a path of self-scrutiny, humility, grace and compassion. He had no son; so briefly I was it. He taught me scripture and how to move with spirit. When he sang "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me," it was for real, and you knew it.

I’d sometimes hear Bill’s singing those years I was homeless and strung out, sleeping under freeway bridges. Bill always told me that no hell was beyond grace, but even God cannot reach a soul that is unwilling to admit its affliction. Step One bitter, humiliating and utterly necessary — is the moment we look ourselves in the eye.

Few addicts end up in the gutter, but most people know what it is to be unable to control the emotional patterns that entrap them and even undo them in small or large ways.

You feel afraid or overwhelmed by the world or your own feelings. Your thoughts get obsessive and then your behavior: obsessively eating, shopping or working in an attempt to chase away an undefined anxiety. Maybe you throw yourself into meaningless sex or maybe into an intimate relationship which, like the previous one and the one that will follow, has no room at all for your vulnerability or the other person’s. You grow more desperate. The postures you’ve acquired to hide the despair themselves drive you nuts. The world seems like a cruel place, and you’ve glimpsed or been stunned by your own capacities for pettiness and cruelty. All your efforts to find a safe haven have left you feeling even more defenseless.

We all know the disease. It’s always in our face. In another century, Thoreau called it the "quiet desperation" of ordinary lives. Now I think it’s more accurate to say "quiet dissatisfaction" — hopefully, manageably quiet. But all of us have felt or seen the bottomless pit that this dissatisfaction skirts. Most of us have kin or friends that have fallen in.

Nothing is ever quite enough. As a people we know self-satisfaction, dissatisfaction, spiritual impoverishment and sterility, but how many really know "enoughness," sufficiency, a simple ease in an unfortified life, a genuine home for our souls to return to?

The Dutch writer Ian Buruma writes of the tantalizing quality of ‘America’ (in quotes) — that drug the world hungers to take for the sheer exhilaration of the high:

"The pull to cut loose, to reinvent ourselves, to shake off the past, and to want instant gratification, sexual, material, spiritual, is something most of us have felt. That is why ‘America,’ the ideal expressed in Hollywood movies, rock music, advertising and other pop culture, is so attractive, so sexy and, to some, so deeply disturbing. All of us want a bit of ‘America,’ but few of us can have it, and even those who do still hunger for more, and more."

Step One calls for bluntness. Almost half the world lives off less than two dollars a day. When I told my daughter Nicole this when she was twelve, she saw the equation immediately. "We are all white South Africans, aren’t we?" she said. It is not possible to pursue mindless hungers at the expense of the world’s majority without being sick in ways few will admit –- a sickness white South Africans knew all too well. "America," the drug, has democratized a dread disease. Every immigrant quickly learns that he or she becomes American not in the voting booth but by partaking of "America the drug" in the various temples where consumers gather.

America is a theater of distractions, and because we concede day by day, year by year to anything that will distract us from an authentic life, we die poorly. To die a shapeless death having never made one’s own acquaintance is common enough to go unnoticed.

Let’s take bluntness a bit further. What are the deceptions and self-deceptions we live by to make it from week to week? Your deceptions and mine? Those raw months after September 11th -- anthrax maybe in the mailbox, all of us wondering now what will be the next terrorist attack and the President telling us that shopping should be the citizens’ response to such a time. Or two days into the bombing of Afghanistan, a small country on the edge of famine in an unstable nuclearized part of the world, an upbeat article in the business section about investors "bidding up" on new weapons systems. How am I/we invested in apocalypse? Invested to the last penny and pretending we aren’t?

What are we in fact willing to sacrifice for our hungers? The possibility that we will ever feel secure or at ease in the world? The possibility of a meaningful and truly generous life? Our children’s future? Their children? The lives of countless strangers in another part of the world? Their children? The world itself?

What is sufficient?

The question is addiction, and about it we must not lie. Our lies imprison us in a world narrowed by fear and altogether few efforts to see beyond our diminished lives. Or, as Michael Ventura puts it, "Your enemies oppress you as much by your fidelity to your own lies as by anything else."

The addiction to militarism and enemymaking that characterizes American foreign policy has yet to make it to Step One as so few citizens understand how unmanageable the current situation is.

One reason is that, unlike most addicts, the Pentagon is never without resources to feed and expand its habit. Uncle Sam is without a wife who might ask what exactly happened to the 1.2 trillion dollars he cannot account for. This is the addict’s misfortune for he never need "come down" and get real. Not only is the addiction rarely seen or questioned, it is, as with the bravado of an addict, celebrated.

Americans are not an extremist people, but we currently suffer an extremist government. Many who do not in good conscience celebrate these self-destructive patterns are nonetheless cowed by the President, though his election remains greatly in dispute, and his Attorney General, who sometimes seems to echo Hermann Goering’s statement at Nuremberg that a people "can always be brought to do the bidding of their leaders. All you have to do is tell them they are attacked and denounce pacifists for their lack of patriotism."

I cannot and am unwilling to believe that Attorney General Ashcroft would consciously echo the sentiments of the Third Reich, but what are we to make of his statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee claiming that those who would "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve"?

One can see how the political climate does not exactly encourage the soul-searching so necessary to the first step.

Eisenhower believed that a vibrant and reflective Republican party would best safeguard the inviolable rights of the individual. Through his term of office, he struggled with the likes of Joe McCarthy, who used a manipulative and shallow patriotism to intimidate Americans who saw things differently from themselves. I will presume for now that Ashcroft doesn’t hear the implications of his own words.

Currently this unmanageable and misguided patriotism has sometimes become so extreme that even to suggest that there is a historical context to the horror of September 11th is to risk being called a traitor. But maybe it is a patriotic imperative to challenge the juggernaut imposed upon America that is so thoroughly distorting our relationship with the community of nations and will predictably yield harvest after harvest of terrorists.

Why not begin in 1953? Iran. British oil milking the country and returning little until the popular leader Mossadeq tries to nationalize the oil and is overthrown by a coup engineered by the CIA. In exchange, the U.S. gets forty percent of the oil profits, and Iran gets a quarter of a century of the brutal Shah. A nascent Islamic fundamentalism grew in response to the dictatorship, and the Shah was replaced by the inevitably anti-American Ayatollah Khomeini.

1963. Iraq. The government of Abd al-Karim Qassim withdraws the country from the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact and so suffers a coup organized by the CIA. James Critchfield, who was head of the CIA in the Middle East at the time, boasted, "We regarded it as a great victory." Ali Saleh Sa’adi, the Ba’ath General Secretary, concurred. "We came to power on the CIA train." After a reign of terror, the Ba’athists established the vicious police state that would eventually find Saddam Hussein as its leader.

1980. Saddam Hussein, then an American ally, invades Iran, afraid that the Muslim theocracy will disturb the delicate Sunni/Shi’ite balance in his country and destabilize his socialist regime. The U.S. opposes U.N. efforts to condemn the invasion. The United States (and Britain and France) arm Hussein against Iran, but Reagan also secretly arms Iran against Iraq as does Israel. America and its allies supported both sides of a war that left upward to a million people dead and several hundred thousand refugees.

1987. The U.S. dispatches the Navy to the Persian Gulf on behalf of Iraq.

1988. Saddam Hussein kills thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons. The U.S. deepens its economic ties with Iraq.

Finally, there are the Afghani fundamentalists that Reagan praised as freedom fighters. They received no less than 30 billion dollars from the CIA for their fierce commitment to drive the Soviets from their land. We trained and armed Osama bin Laden and many of his soldiers and politically supported the Taliban right up to September 11th.

The revolving door of American foreign policy, "friends" becoming "enemies" again and again, has created a situation where a nominally peace-loving country has been perpetually at war for most of sixty years and where our last six military engagements have had American soldiers attacked by weapons provided by American arms merchants. This is the kind of unmanageability that the first step addresses.

All this forever justified with the lie of protecting American interests and American lives. Eisenhower, warrior and patriot, saw all this with prescient courage and insight: "We must never let the weight of this combination [the military-industrial complex] endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together."

On the national level Step One requires the self-awareness and truth telling of "an alert and knowledgeable citizenry." The World Trade Center was the most recent domino of many to fall — the previous having fallen in the Arab world. Where will the next fall?

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