Impulsivity, Addiction, and the Passions
By Hieromonk Alexis Trader
Ancient Christian Wisdom
Death to the World (about)
It should come as no surprise to those familiar with individuals struggling with addiction that impulsivity is a core issue. In technical terms, there is a certain fundamental correlation between addiction and impulsivity. People who are impulsive are more vulnerable to developing addictive behavior, because they give little regard to adverse consequences (Impulse Control Disorders and Co-Occurring Disorders, Potenza, p. 51) or to be more precise, they prefer immediate reinforcers to delayed ones, instant gratification to long-term satisfaction. Being impulsive means acting without forethought. And although those struggling to be free of an addiction know full well that not acting on impulse is in the long run more beneficial than giving in, when temptation arises, forethought that motivates becomes a nigh impossible task and impulsivity takes over, impulsivity that in its pathological form can be defined as “a failure to regulate, monitor, or control behavior and emotional expression” (Impulsivity in Neurobehavioral Disorders, Holmes, Johnson, Roedel, p. 309).
The first step in all the many 12 step-groups begins with “we admitted that we were powerless over _______ that our lives had become unmanageable.” This certainly fits the above definition for pathological impulsivity and clearly expresses the strong link between addiction and impulsivity. And the impulsive life can certainly become unmanageable. In fact, left unchecked, impulsive behavior will eventually take on the characteristics of infantile behavior without any of the innocence of childhood (Gratifying Impulses, Toch & Adams, p. 145) becoming increasingly destructive and even potentially violent. Toch and Adams note the danger in gratifying the impulses: “Gratifying impulses is by definition a destructive enterprise, because other people become objects of need satisfaction. Less obviously, impulse gratification can be self-destructive, because the reactions the person invites compound his or her problems and can escalate into ugly, no-win confrontations.”
In the ascetic literature, the closest notions to that of impulses are provocations (προσβολή) and momentary disturbances (παραρριπισμός). These particular thoughts or λογισμοί assail human beings from the outside and call forth, if not demand, a response. They are temptations, which if repeatedly acted on, become passions that automatically direct hapless souls down crooked paths away from God. The ascetic struggles of the Church fathers have been directed at recognizing and rooting out the passions in all of their manifestations. And though provocations or impulses still come, the soul remains steadfast in cleaving to God and fulfilling His holy will. Whether the problem be addiction, impulsivity, the passions or some combination of the three, the starting point for healing is always rigorous honesty, “a searching and fearless moral inventory.” Thus, Saint Mark the Ascetic writes, “Do not say, ‘I don’t want it, but it happens.’ For even though you may not want the thing itself, you welcome what causes it” (On the Spiritual law, 142). The welcoming of impulses is the real problem that needs to be addressed.
Whether the problem be impulses, addiction, or the passions, real change requires a new way of life, a new way of engaging with the world, of relating to others, and of relying on God. The Fathers, in their ascetic works, describe in detail this life in which one need not be at the mercy of impulses. Early on in his The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Saint John Climacus writes, “At the gate of your heart place strict unsleeping guards. Restrain actions and movements of your limbs, practice noetic (intellectual) stillness. And, most paradoxical of all, in the midst of commotion, be unmoved in soul. Curb your tongue which rages to leap into arguments (4:37).”
Guards are aware that burglars may try to enter and know precisely what to do if they appear. This kind of awareness then is the first treatment for impulsivity. The second is paying strict attention to your hands and legs and not allowing them to move according to the dictates of impulses. Though difficult this is certainly possible. If this battle is won, one can find stillness by turning again and again to Christ. Finally, what applies to the limbs can apply also to one’s tongue. Saint John of Climacus continues, “Stillness of the body is knowledge and composure of the habits and feelings. And stillness of soul is the knowledge of one’s thoughts and an inviolable mind. (27:2); Bring out the staff of patience, and the dogs will soon stop their insolence” (27:70). Again watchfulness over what one does and how one feels as well as watchfulness over the thoughts, with patience, can make us less impulsive.
In combating the manifestation of impulsivity in a particular destructive behavior or passion as the fathers call it, the holy fathers have a specific strategy to combat each behavior/passion. For example, Saint John Climacus counsels those who have a problem with anger by first describing it, “An angry person is a willing epileptic, who due to an involuntary tendency keeps convulsing and falling down.” (8:11) and then offering a healing strategy, “The beginning of freedom from anger is silence of the lips when the heart is agitated; the middle is silence of the thoughts when there is a mere disturbance of the soul; and the end is an imperturbable calm under the breath of unclean winds” (8:4). The description is meant to wake the reader up to the reality of the negative consequences of the passion. The healing strategy is meant to offer tools that can be used at the time of the struggle.
Rather than focusing on the passion, the fathers often counsel their spiritual children to focus on the corresponding virtue to the passion that assails them. In the case of anger, Saint John counsels the cultivation of meekness by keeping the tongue silent, the mind undisturbed (by not focusing on the object of the anger), and finally calm in spite of the circumstances. Of course, no virtue is achieved on one’s own but only through synergy with the grace of God, which is something 12 Step Groups struggling for recovery from addiction acknowledge when they say “we turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” With God’s help, with wise watchfulness, with control over our limbs, and with much patience, the addicted, the impulsive, and the passionate can all hope to say, as once did Saint Paul: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phillipians 4:13).
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