When we hit problems in life, whatever they might be, we need first to acknowledge that we don’t have all of the answers. This is especially true when we are unwell, including those suffering from “substance use disorder”. Those who seek earnestly to recover need to practise humility. What does this mean in practical terms?
For whatever reason – ego, a false sense of pride, or insecurity, perhaps – we sometimes don’t want to listen to others. This is often so if our problems involve others in our immediate circle, including family, friends and work colleagues because we don’t want to show weakness. We don’t want to be told what to do by others. We don’t want to show that we don’t know. We want others to believe that we have the situation under control.
I see the problem many times in alcoholics when meeting somebody for the first time in recovery treatment. I’ve also witnessed this sometimes in fellowship meetings. The newcomers know better than you, or think that they do. They question why they are even there or what you can tell them. Often that’s because they are intelligent and something big in their own circle. What could you possibly tell them?
We view humility or modesty as the opposite of pride. There is nothing wrong with a sense of pride in one’s achievements, of course. We can take satisfaction from having done something well – passing exams, raising a family, getting promoted at work, for example. The problem of pride arises when inner-satisfaction turns into self-aggrandisement, constantly trying to prove that we are better or bigger than somebody else.
Such behaviour may, of course, be a mask to hide behind. It might manifest a troubled upbringing or lack of self-esteem. We live in a competitive world. We have to demonstrate that we are qualified to do something. We have to earn promotion or a new job impressing somebody. But problems arise when we are constantly comparing ourselves with others and worrying overly about what others think about us. This leads to resentments.
We see the problem all too prevalent in the destructive use of social media. As Epictetus said, "when someone is properly grounded in life, they shouldn't have to look outside of themselves for approval" (Discourses, 1.21.1).
With regard to alcoholism, how are you going to get better if you can’t acknowledge that you have a problem? How are you going to recover from addiction if you won’t listen to others and hear their story? Turning up for a quick fix, expecting to walk out of the door with the problem solved is not going to work. We might learn something if we start paying attention to what others tell us. We start to re-define ourselves. We start to get well and to reach out to others.
We need humility to admit that we need help. I was broken and brought low when I was strapped into a wheelchair and taken by ambulance to hospital. I was prepared to do whatever it would take to get well because hospitalisation, albeit brief, was the culmination of years of “loss of control” drinking. But I have to admit that I was not ready to pay attention to the stories of others. That came only at a later stage of recovery.
In a sense, we need to be brought low before we will truly reach a turning point, albeit this involves suffering for the user and for others around them. This is the process or personal journey to “rock bottom”, however individually defined. Harsh as it may sound, we need to see a broken and contrite heart as part of openness to recovery. This is what some call the “gift of desperation”. It describes how we reach the point of final resignation in which we are willing to do whatever it takes to get well.
Humility is sometimes seen as a person lacking in self-confidence. This may indeed sometimes be the case. It is important, then, to encourage the sufferer to be open about their experience and to express a view. This requires courage. It takes courage to acknowledge a problem and embark on a recovery journey.
Of course, if you go around telling the world that you are humble then then this is not practising humility! Humility doesn’t need to announce itself. It is partly for this reason that Aristotle did not believe that humility is one of the virtues, though this has been debated by philosophers. Can one be modest or practising humility if one believes oneself to possess virtuous qualities? Instead, Aristotle views humility as consistent with “temperance” – steering a middle way between extremes.
We also don’t want humility to stand in the way of progress, of course. David Hume, the Enlightenment philosopher, argues that humility about one’s achievements can restrict growth in personal excellence and, hence, social progress. Perhaps what matters most here is not to do with beliefs or knowledge but more practical in terms of how we act in the world.
What we are saying, returning to our main topic of addiction, is that in seeking to get better we need to be open to alternative points of view. We need to put to one side our own estimations of superior knowledge.
By the way, the medical practitioners also need humility. They don’t have all of the answers. They are not experiencing our individual obsessions and addictions, much as they try to help us get well. Alcoholics and drug users don’t all fit into a tidy box.
In a different context, I was taught a valuable lesson as a young lecturer. I was asked a question by a student that I couldn’t answer. As I tried to bluff my way out, I dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole with embarrassment. Now, if I’m asked a question about one of the areas of my supposed expertise, I have no problem saying – “I don’t know but I’ll try to find out and get back to you”.
There is a well-known saying in fellowship meetings – “leave your ego at the door”. This is not meant to sound harsh or judgemental. Instead, it’s intended as wise advice. If you want to get better then listen to what others have to say and learn from those who have been through the same experience.