I was reading yesterday about learning the secret of contentment in Christ. As Paul writes, this peace is independent of circumstances or possessions, ‘whether I have less than I need, or whether I have more’.
Culturally, I think everyone can identify with the fear of having too little – what’s maybe more interesting is the threat posed by having too much. We’re all familiar with the adage that money can’t buy love. But a surfeit of passion can be equally damaging. Sex is one of many contemporary addictions and the media is splattered with the wreckage of relationships, celebrity and otherwise. I suspect the attraction of such stories lies in part in the delicious sense of schadenfraude they provide. X, (usually Jennifer Aniston) may have millions in the bank and a smokin hot body, but, as Heat reassures me, she still can’t get a man. Madonna may be the fittest, most powerful woman in the world (and boy, can she rock a tune), but no amount of botox can prevent her picking up her bus pass. Metaphorically at least. And so on.
But it’s not just those born in the spotlight who struggle with excess baggage. It is striking for example, how winning the lottery (or the X-factor) seems to blight, not just our relationships, but our psychological health as well. (I’m using ‘I’ in a general sense. I haven’t really got lucky on a scratchcard or released an album). Alongside strangers keen to cash in on your success, the motives of family and friends can become suspect, long-held cords of love and blood stretched to breaking point or buckled by the weight of ‘good fortune’. Equally, what do you do when you’ve won the modelling contract or signed the record deal? Money can solve a lot of problems, but some of those ‘problems’ are what give our lives purpose. When they’re removed, so too are many goals and ambitions, the things that can order our lives and bring them meaning. Or at least this may happen if that’s how we define who we are and what makes our lives ‘work’.
Addictions are an interesting example of struggling with having too little and too much. Internal hungers are frequently vivified in excess – whether this is shopping, food, drugs, alcohol or work. We feel like we can never have enough of something (an emotional need), and this is transposed to the material world, (where physiological addiction may then consolidate the problem). Maybe sweets and cakes were used as a treat when I was growing up. I’ve learnt that the solution to loneliness is a pile of chocolate wrappers – my way of exercising self-comfort. Or perhaps I look to success as a way of ensuring I never have to go without. Working myself into the ground is not just about the pay cheque. It’s making sure I never grow up in an environment fraught with risk and fear and desperation. It’s insurance against aging, poverty and insignificance.
Our hungers make us feel like we can never have enough – but ironically, they can be expressed in an excess that is even more damaging. This is partly how I felt when I was at my lowest weight – I looked like Skeletor, a cadaver lurching through the shopping centre. People would gasp and point at me in the street. But I still felt like I was invisible, that I was nothing, that I wasn’t being heard. And despite myself, my emotional desires can still dictate my behaviour.
But perhaps addictions also function in another way. Perhaps they also serve to curb an excess of self. Just as we can be afraid of having too many things, we can feel that there is too much of us – that we’re taking up too much emotional space. And at the same time, we may feel that we can’t fulfil all the demands placed upon us – that what’s required is some kind of cloning system to meet all the expectations. Addictions can therefore act as a way of simplifying, narrowing down and even escaping life.
What do I mean? Well, if I’m sick or unable to function, I’m only part of who I’ve been made to be. And this may feel really horrible. But it can also bring benefits, some of which play out on a subconscious level. If, for example, I’m at the office all the time, then I don’t need to step up to the plate in the same way in my marriage or my home life. If I’m a drug addict or if I have an eating disorder, then I don’t have any reserves for anything other than my addiction. I am physically and mentally unable to deal with many of the demands of life. And that can be a relief – not just if your standards are too low or if you’re ‘lazy’, but if your standards are too high and you don’t know how to stop. Part of me wants to be all that I can be. But part of me is terrified of what that might entail. Of not hitting the mark. But equally, of surpassing it.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph magazine, the actor Jeff Bridges, describes this very human ambivalence.
Making any film, he said, there are two conflicting emotions at work: the desire to do his best and the fear that he wouldn’t;
‘You’re attracted to something, but at the same time right along with that comes that feeling of, ‘yes, but are you going to be able to pull it off?’ You keep it in the dream line, it’s kind of safe; but once you say, ‘OK, it’s everything you want but let’s see if you can do it big fella – come on…’
So, fear of failure? clarifies the interviewer. But Bridges responds with this;
‘Yeah, or fear of success too. It’s funny. You succeed, but now where are you gonna go from there? I’ve got to keep proving each time that I can laugh or cry more real each time’.
Fear of not making the grade is outstripped by only one thing – fear of outstripping it. Not just being less than we are – but more. Now that’s properly frightening.
They don’t tell you this in the tampax ads with the girls skateboarding off high-rise buildings. They don’t tell you it in school, the locker-room or the boardroom.
Nothing can stand between you and your dreams. Maybe so. But what are those dreams? Are they worth it?
You can be all you want to be. But who is that person? How will you know when you get there? By whose standards?
If I get to define my dreams and goals and who I want to be, I can fill myself up with a world of stuff, but it will never be enough. I’ll die clutching mountains of TopShop bags and agonising over the byline to my life. I’ll be too scared to step out, tormented by having too much and yet – never having enough. I’ll feast on food and drink and stuff that never satisfies.
Ecclesiastes 1:8 sums up both the weariness of surfeit and the hunger that it enflames;
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
Here speaks a man who has drained life to its dregs – who has tasted all that the world can offer; knowledge, wine, women, pleasure, riches…and who then pronounces them all ‘meaningless’. His conclusion is striking. Since man cannot make sense of life through his own efforts, its meaning lies in enjoying life as a gift from God. Only our Creator and Redeemer can make sense of who we are and why we’re here. He alone can bring us contentment, whatever our circumstances.