Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Living with Passionate Commitment

Sobriety is a commitment to a way of life

While active in our addictions, many of us were incapable of making and fulfilling commitments to ourselves and others. A commitment, to my way of thinking, is a set of promises that aim toward a certain goal or end. The crucial thing about commitments is that they can only be fulfilled by actions. Actions do speak louder than words.

Commitments tend to scare active addicts; they are seen as confining or dangerous in a certain way. They’re confining because they might require that we no longer do something we believe we should still get to do or that we can handle doing. Commitments invite scrutiny and accountability as well. For all the times we may have promised someone to stop using and yet did not, we are confronted with the statement, “You promised.” This may be said in anger or resignation. It may be said as an accusation. But it is the truth and the truth hurts.

Commitments may seem dangerous because they hold the potential for failure. We may say that we are committed to certain things, but our actions are not congruent with our words. Not fulfilling commitments may actually reinforce our belief that we are incapable of doing so. And if we are the type of people who can’t keep promises and fulfill commitments, why even bother to try?

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Commitments orient a person in the world in part because they orient a person within herself. Our commitments act as a compass. In the absence of commitments, we careen through life. William James describes people who are not centered or steady as having a life “whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes.”

This is perhaps one of the best descriptions that can be applied to active addicts; our lives are riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. These are the very things that preclude commitments and make us unable to navigate our own lives at times. We are unable to get our bearings.

Of course, the nature or content of the commitment matters enormously. All commitments are not created equal nor should they be judged as such. This is one reason why it is important to bring more rich and robust moral language back to discussions of addiction and recovery. A commitment to amassing a fortune by whatever means necessary no matter the costs to others is morally suspect. A commitment to stop using and become a better person and parent/child/friend/co-worker is morally praiseworthy.

The latter commitment involves fundamentally altering how an addict is in the world. This cannot be done wholesale but can only be done incrementally by keeping promises. Another crucial thing about promises and commitments is that one has to learn how to keep them. They are skills and require practice in much the same way as playing a musical instrument well does. Never underestimate the importance of practice and habit.

As important as practice is, it is not sufficient by itself. Attitude matters; at some point, there needs to be passion. One needs to make a passionate commitment to a way of life. This is the change that happens when one moves from a commitment not to drink or use to a commitment to live soberly because one wants to be a different kind of person.  

The passionate commitment to a life of sobriety is liberating. The long drama of repair and repentance is rewritten. Options that had been foreclosed in our using days are reopened. New opportunities become available. Our actions and attitudes undergo a huge transformation.

Such a huge transformation means that we are regenerated, as William James would say. We are different people; we have liberated ourselves by living a passionate commitment. 

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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