Practical Wisdom - The Path to Recovery
When I stepped into semi-retirement, I wanted to do something useful and with purpose. I said to somebody that I wanted to stop being an academic. I’ve been a (semi-) academic all of my life. I wanted to get my head out of books and get my hands dirty, so to speak. As an alcoholic in recovery, I wanted to help others undergoing alcohol treatment.
I started reading books about addiction – not for the first time. I investigated getting another set of certificates in psychotherapy and counselling. But then I stopped. It seemed to me that I already had sufficient “qualifications”. I’ve studied psychology and philosophy most of my adult life. I have a doctorate in philosophical theology. My special interest is personhood – what makes a human person.
Above all else, “I’ve been there and done that”, as we say. I’ve looked over the precipice and become locked into a cycle of destructive behaviour. I’ve lost my footing and fallen into despair. I’ve been helped along the path to recovery and I’ve climbed out on the other side. What would some more “certificates” prove?
Am I not interested in the academic study of addiction? Yes, of course I am! I’ve been reading indirectly about the subject for most of my adult life. I want to understand what people have been studying on a formal basis. I can’t go around generalising from my own personal experience. But I’m not fundamentally interested in arcane philosophical debates when it comes to offering help.
Actually, what I want to do as a mentor is to be ready to offer support when it’s asked for. I can do this through listening, relating my own experience, and making practical suggestions for things to do as life choices. I want to do more than “talk the talk”. I want to “walk the walk”. The alcoholic doesn’t really care about the details of the academic debate. He or she just wants to get better.
The relentless search for knowledge or self-understanding can become destructive. That is because it becomes a vicious cycle from which we can never completely escape. We are not satisfied that we have found the “truth” and our scepticism prevents us from acting.
Tony Hancock was a famous British alcoholic and comedian who committed suicide at the age of 44. In The Life and Death of Tony Hancock, Clive Goodwin observes that he was often surrounded by books, obsessed with a thirst for knowledge. He carried a set of encyclopaedias with him everywhere and “would arrive at rehearsals carrying a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Spinoza’s Ethics” (see p. 210) but it didn’t help his melancholy.
Many great thinkers have cautioned against the pursuit of speculative knowledge. In his letters to Lucilius in the first century, the Roman Stoic Seneca cautions, “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere”, and “since you cannot read all the books which you may possess, it is enough to possess only as many books as you can read” (Letters From A Stoic, Dover Publications 2016, p.2).
In a different but somewhat related vein, Martin Luther, the sixteenth century Reformer, commented that what makes a good theologian is “not understanding, reading or speculating” (Weimar Collection 5.176, pp 32-33) – in other words, what matters is commitment and not having your head stuck in books.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard contrasts the life of what he calls the aesthetical and the ethical. He says, in effect, that if we go up the path of philosophical speculation then we end up in a relentless circular movement, never actually making decisions, trapped in a kind of paralysis or being carried along with the flow. This is a form of stasis often associated with melancholy.
Instead, true freedom is ethical – when we make an internal commitment, decide for something, and make choices about how and what to do with our lives. That is how we become someone. This process of self-actualisation is ekstasis. The literal meaning is that we “stand outside” of ourselves, relating to other people and the rest of the external world as we grow as human persons.
In his Journal of 1843, Kierkegaard famously said, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”. In other words, we can analyse as much as we like, or don’t like for that matter, but ultimately we have to make choices at every moment as life progresses forward.
The truth is not presented to us in textbooks. The latter are providing us with the tools. These are the tools to build a body of knowledge, to allow us to analyse. But the spiritual quest is the “path” – it’s about how we find meaning and purpose in our lives and about the practical choices that we make through being in the world – Practical Wisdom.
We can easily relate this to the problem of addiction and recovery. The addict remains tied to the past and becomes increasingly melancholic. Life is perceived as meaningless. The addict is trapped in his or her world. The movement in recovery needs to be outward. It needs to be a movement that involves active choice on a pathway to freedom and openness.
Sometimes we need to throw the books away and get our hands dirty with practical wisdom. As Shakespeare says through Hamlet – “there are more things in heaven and on earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
We need to lift our heads and look forward on a journey of discovery on the path to recovery and freedom!