In her new book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown tells the story of an early morning swim with her husband, Steve, while their family was on vacation. They set out across a cove, stopping in the middle to do a safety check. Brown looked around and was overcome by the beauty of the place and her gratitude for her husband. She said to him, as they treaded water, “Steve, “I’m so glad we decided to do this together. It’s beautiful out here.”
She expected an equally gushing response from him. But instead, he simply said, “Yeah. Water’s good,” and swam on.
When they reached the far shore, she tried again to connect with him. “This is so great. I love that we’re doing this. I feel so close to you,” she said to Steve. To this he replied without much conviction, “Yep. Good swim.”
They swam back to their starting point. By the time they got back, Brene Brown was full of fury. She stopped him from getting out of the water and said, “I feel like you’re blowing me off, and the story that I’m making up is either that you looked over at me while I was swimming and thought, Man, she’s getting old. She can’t even swim freestyle anymore. Or you saw me and thought, She sure as hell doesn’t rock a Speedo like she did twenty-five years ago.”
It took a while, but in the conversation that followed, what came out was that Steve had had a nightmare that night. In it, he was swimming with his family and was unable to save all of them from a speedboat rushing through the water. The nightmare had forced him to feel his fears of not being strong enough and not being a good enough father.
She was afraid of not being loveable and beautiful. He was afraid of not being strong enough and capable. And so they had each spun out a story in their minds based on those fears.
“The story I’m starting to make up is….” We all do this – It’s part of coping with our sense of vulnerability. Our fears of rejection, failure, and loss are so powerful. They cloud our judgment and wend their way into our relationships in so many ways.
In today’s gospel, Jesus’s disciples, James and John, ask him to do whatever they ask of him. And then they ask to sit at his side in paradise. This request is often chalked up as a quest for power on the disciples’ part. But I read it differently. I think it’s a quest for safety.
Just before today’s gospel story begins, Jesus tells his disciples he is going to suffer and die. He explodes their assumption that he is going to lead them to a military victory over the Romans. He leaves them feeling pretty insecure about their future. The story James and John are making up in their minds is that Jesus is going to abandon them. They aren’t safe. They want security, and everything they’ve been taught about how the world works leads them to think that if they want security then need to sit next to the person with the power.
We’re a lot like James and John, aren’t we? We want Jesus to do anything we ask him! And when we feel vulnerable, our fears lead us to make all sorts of false assumptions, take misplaced actions, develop bad habits.
Sometimes those are harmless, but sometimes they have great costs. One of the most prevalent ways people seek to numb the pain of living with vulnerability is through the overuse of alcohol, drugs, pornography, or other addictive things.
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance or engages in an activity that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.
Addiction is not a moral failure. Those struggling with addiction are the symptom-bearers of a society that asks too much of us, provides little support for the most vulnerable, and makes little space for vulnerability, imperfection, honest conflict or grief. Sometimes addiction begins with a simple desire to numb the pain that comes with vulnerability. Sometimes it begins with “the story I’m making up” being one of rejection and despair, and just needing to cope with that.
Right now in this town, and throughout this country, a particular form of addiction is running rampant: addiction to opioids. Opioids are medications that relieve pain: Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet, codeine. These are deadly in and of themselves when abused, but they also can lead to the use and abuse of heroin, which offers a similar high but is easier to obtain and cheaper.
In March of 2014, a Public Health Emergency was declared in MA because overdoses from these substances had become so common. Between 2000 and 2012, Massachusetts experienced a 90% increase in deaths from opioid overdoses. In 2012 alone, 670 people died from opioid overdoses. In Watertown, one person died from such an overdoses in 2014. This year, already, there have been nine such deaths. This is a crisis, and it is in our homes, our families.
One of the sad truths of addiction is that the families of those suffering with it are often unable to talk publicly about their struggles, for fear of being judged. When a child dies, parents carry shame in addition to their grief. Where can they take their feelings and find support?
This week in Watertown, we are all invited to “End the Stigma.” (Learn more here). Several events are being offered where you can get information, support, resources, and show up to be supportive of those who are in recovery programs. All of us have more to learn, and all of us have more to do to create a community where those who are struggling with addiction can find healing and hope.
From my work as a pastor, I know that there is not one family that is not touched by the impact of addiction. Please contact me at any time if there is any aspect of this truth that you want to talk about, if you need prayers, advice, assurance, or help sorting out how to have the next conversation. I will do all that I can to make sure you find what you need, and you will not be judged, but loved.
If we follow a Savior whose will is that all people know they are loved and thrive, then we can’t pretend addiction is not in our homes.
If we follow a Savior who, in his life here, always sought to be with and offer mercy to those most marginalized, then we must be with those who feel marginalized by the stigma that comes with addiction.
If we are called to be honest about our own vulnerability and know that we are all in it together as broken humans needing redemption, we cannot pretend that this is “those people’s problem.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus teaches that the greatness we seek is in weakness. Our healing starts in being honest about our vulnerability, supporting one another in asking questions, standing together. We start by acknowledging that we are all lost and need to be found; we are all making up stories that are inaccurate; we are all sons and daughters of James and John.
James and John’s request to sit at Jesus’s right hand and left hand in paradise is meant to bring to mind another story from the gospel: When he was lifted onto the cross, Jesus had two men on his right and left hand: criminals. One asked him, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This man was “the last” in his society; he asked not for power but for mercy. And Jesus loved him. And Jesus loved James and John, too, despite their fears (maybe because of them).
And Jesus loves us, too. Let us work together to erase the stigma of addiction and change the story we tell to one of redemption, health, and love.