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Tahirih V. Lee Addiction, Suffering and Healing: A Christian Perspective on the Self-Help Movement See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy , which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. Colossians 2:8 Popular culture in the United States in the late 1990s is embracing images of disease to explain a host of negative behaviors , from murdering to shopping, from racial discrimination1 to helping others,2 from breaking the law to believing in the law,3 from sexual promiscuity4 to indifference to a spouse,5 from staying with an abusive spouse6 to defending a spouse against accusations of adultery.7 Best-selling books, newspaper and magazine articles, television shows, and radio programs portray such behaviors as addictions or compulsions and suggest treatment as their solution. The experts who diagnose these behaviors and advocate cures are part of what is called the "self-help" movement. Disease carries no connotation of blame or responsibility. Logos 2:1 Winter 1999 106 Logos Viewing bad behavior in terms of disease, then, risks providing it with a subterfuge, a pose behind which the wrongdoer may hide from the harsh reality that he has the responsibility to correct himself . This is a risk, to be sure, particularly once the spiritual dimension ofbad behavior is brought into the picture with the Christian teaching about sin. But the benefits of using the imagery of disease to depict wrong outweigh this risk. When God is at the center of our efforts to improve ourselves, we can experience a transformation that involves our entire beings, notjust our superficial traits. And healing is an apt metaphor for this kind ofself-improvement. Self-help programs that adopt the imagery ofhealing center themselves on God, while those programs that ignore the imagery ofhealing advocate little more than superficial changes brought about by mind manipulation—a dangerous course toward self-aggrandizement. Condemning the Self-Help Movement for Abdicating Individual Responsibility The spread of the imagery of disease in the self-help movement rings an alarm bell for the Church, because the movement contains elements that contradict Church teaching on salvation, conversion, discernment, and virtue. The Church teaches that some behavior is not merely undesirable, it is sinful. The Catechism provides a set of long-used terms that covers many of them. Sex addiction is "lust," "adultery," or "fornication." Racism and sexism are "pride." Overeating is "gluttony." Compulsive shopping is "greed," "avarice," and "idolatry." Prolonged television viewing is the capital sin of"sloth." Giving help in a spirit of love is the theological virtue of"charity ," but is treatable in a clinic for those who want to decrease the help they lend.8 Bearing up under adversity is the cardinal virtue of "fortitude,"9 and remaining close to one's spouse despite his or her Addiction, Suffering, and Healingiqt shortcomings is "fidelity,"but experts excuse some women who kill or leave their husbands by deeming them afflicted with "Battered Woman Syndrome."10 By portraying the unfailing exercise of some virtues as illnesses, the self-help movement might be undermining the Church's teaching that people should practice these virtues. This strategy is not new. People in antebellum America, for example , tried to diminish the virtue ofAfrican-Americans fleeing from abuse by inventing the disease of "drapetomania," which was supposed to infect slaves with an "uncontrollable urge" to escape from their masters.11 Church teaching on sin encourages repentance, which calls forth from the sinner a deep sense of responsibility for his actions. This sense, which we call contrition, acts as a spur to self-correction . The metaphor of illness, however, lacks a connotation of responsibility for the illness. Therefore the metaphor is vulnerable to an interpretation in which bad actions are unassailable. Should the Church take a stand against the self-help movement? Yes, if the movement rejects the importance of assuming responsibility for one's actions to the point where it saps the enterprise of self-correction by encouraging denial and the generation ofexcuses. Here is one way in which Christians could take a stand against the self-help movement. We might condemn the popular portrayal of sin or...


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pp. 105-126
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