The Fuel of Renewal

Everyone who has ever overused knows that it creates more pain than it takes away.

It’s true with booze.

It’s true with food.

It’s true with meds that soothe our mood.

But that doesn’t matter to us abuse artists.

Our pattern is a perfect circle: the minute we feel the ill effects of overuse, we overuse so that we no longer feel. And once we no longer feel, we do whatever we want, even though we know it will produce more ill effects.

The problem is that no one can overcome a circle.

The problem is not so much that there is something evil about unchecked alcoholic intoxication or that there is something awful about over-indulging an appetite or that there is something immoral about incessantly knocking back pills to cope with the common day.

The fact is too many people enjoy alcohol with impunity and too many people eat unburdened and too many people have drug stores in their medicine cabinets without becoming junkies for addiction to be merely about the substance itself being abused.

The deeper thing that gives substance abuse its sting is the futility of fueling a sick life that no drug can save.

The hell of addiction is not a heavy hand with the medicine, or an overdoing of the fuel. The hell of addiction is having hope in a life that is already over.

The surest way to know that a life is over is to start a new life and to see the error in retrospect that was never conceivable while it was active.

A life which perverts the soul’s need to enjoy nourishment or a life that prevents a mind’s need to renew its beliefs or a life that punishes a heart’s need to love is not a life worth living.

It’s a life worth leaving.

We who overuse are the last ones to see this.

Because we are so addicted to overusing and because we are so limited in our circular thinking and because we are so numb to the impulses of our imminent death, it never occurs to us that our diseased lives need to be buried.

We need not only a second chance at life but also a new energy source that will allow us to thrive in the time we have left.

This does not happen easily.

The recovery from addiction and the necessity to live off an unproven energy source has as much momentum going for it as cutting America’s dependence on foreign oil and switching to sustainable fuel.

The cutting of the dependence seems so defeating, and the prospect of some softer leaner sober power seems so demeaning that it’s easy to diminish the whole proposal as conformist weakness.

But cheer up: the mission couldn’t be more revolutionary.

The mission is change or die.

If we choose life, the good news is that the new energy source for our second chance life is already within us.

II. Signs of a dying life

I tell my undergraduates each semester that we won’t know for sure how great living writers are until they die, and we can determine how they hold up against the rest of history.

I like to watch the students’ reaction.

Death seems like an unnecessary prerequisite for establishing greatness in our culture, because we Americans enshrine people in the hall of fame before their reign is finished, and because we Americans are so prejudiced against the heroes of history who make our accomplishments appear pedestrian.

The students invariably laugh or look at each other as though I can’t be serious.

But I am serious.

Death makes clear what life distorts.

We all have a first chance in life. And when our first chance is not lived with love and not lived with service and not lived with purpose, it dies.

It doesn’t matter how much balm we put on a gangrenous foot. It’s not taking us anywhere but the grave.

We all know the signs of a dying life. We are emotionally immobile. We can never seem to cry. We believe in nothing. But we can’t say why. We are terrified of change. We hate those who are good. We would kill ourselves if we thought we could. Our relationships are ruled by resentment and lies. We can’t look anyone in the eyes. We are no use to others and we are making a dime. We are our own unhappiness all of the time.

Perhaps our first chance has been ripped away from us by brutality or betrayal.

Perhaps we have blown our first chance though pride or selfishness.

It doesn’t matter.

Whether the loss of our first chance is something we have chosen out of self-destructiveness, or whether is it something that has been chosen for us, our first chance is not coming back.

It is over. And so are we if we hold onto it. The more we overdo the fuel, the more we undo our second chance.

Obviously the substance abuse has to stop. But if we are going to stay sober and clean we need to do more than stop the abuse.

This does not mean that we should leave our job or leave our spouse or renounce our friends or sell the house.

We do not need a new exterior environment. We need a new interior arrangement.

It is only after we see our life dead that we know what it means to live again. And it is not like anything we have ever known before, even though it is all quite natural and familiar.

I have said many times that I should have been dead because of the things I did when I was drinking and drugging.

But I did die.

And now I am living again.

We must let what is dying die so that what needs to live can be born.

III. The New Fuel

It’s easy to imagine that pain originates from the outside, because some of it does.

It’s easy to blame the pain on outside things, because sometimes outside things deserve blame.

But it’s a trap to think that any lasting cure to pain can come from the outside.

The best that an outside cure can do is quiet the pain for the moment and leave us to suffer the lingering side effects.

It’s ridiculous how many serious side effects drug makers warn us about. It is even more ridiculous how many serious side effects drug makers never warn us about.

And if the pain is real, it is not going to go away with a bottle or an overdose or a binge anyway. If the pain is real, it is a sign that it is coming from the inside.

And if the pain is coming from the inside, the cure has to come from the inside.

We are not talking about chronic physical pain. We are not talking about nerve pain or pain associated with injury or or old age.

We are talking about the pain of everyday existence that is fatal if it is left untreated. We are talking about the pain of being sober, the pain of being hungry, the pain of being an open sore of need for meaning and mission and belief.

The power to ballast this kind of pain is inside us, but it needs to be generated. It needs to be activated. It needs to be turned on.

We live on an energy we cannot duplicate.

We thrive on a force we cannot fathom.

We need science to explain to us what it means at the microscopic level. We need philosophy to tell us what it means at the ethereal level. We need religion to tell us what it means at the spiritual level.

But it’s all an approximation of a mystery that is ours to harness.

The power is always inside us.

Service is a great tool when we feel depressed. No matter how useless we feel, someone is always lower who needs a hand.

Intimacy is a great fuel when we feel repressed. We need to find our healing in the people we are committed to for life.

Grace is working when we are feeling blessed. Gratitude is a decision. This is a high we can keep pursuing.

Remember that freedom is a fearful thing because it gives us the power to do what is harmful at the expense of doing what is helpful. Freedom is the capacity to be unhappy even though we are perfectly capable of being cheerful.

The more responsibly we use our freedom, the more we will trust ourselves with it, and the more dependable and endurable our pain management will be.

And the worst day of our second chance will be better than the best day of the life that we let die.

About Rob Ryser

Rob Ryser is an indigent artist and a second-chance storyteller who is fascinated by the power of serious writing to transform life.
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