Addicted to Self-Denial: Can We Recover?

 “There is no complete recovery from a fundamentalist childhood” (82).

So writes Margaret Miles in her latest book, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter. Miles was the first woman to receive tenure at Harvard Divinity School, the president of Graduate Theological Union, and… a fundamentalist?

Here Miles tells her surprising tale with the help of a longtime companion, Augustine’s Confessions, stating, at the outset, “I am still a fundamentalist” (7). Really?
Sitting in a packed lecture hall, at Harvard Divinity School in the late 80s, I listened, week after week, as Miles carefully paced us through 1700 years of Christian history. The year-long course was achingly ambitious. Firmly, quietly, Miles picked through the thicket, complementing our reading assignments with handouts of primary quotations and slide shows of art and architecture.

With each person, text, or event, she would unfailingly find something beautiful, something resonant, something human, even in what seemed unlikely, repulsive, or absurd. Why would a human say or do this? What help and what harm could such words and actions cause? What problems were solved? Which concerns assuaged? I would leave class feeling as if my soul had been nourished.
In Fundaughter (Miles’ nickname for the book), Miles turns this empathic eye on her own upbringing, intent on finding the beauty amidst the pain, the help and the harm, in habits of thinking, feeling, and acting that she learned from her parents and their “fundamentalist” Christianity.

Even so, the metaphor of recovery in the quotation above reveals her hand: there was more harm than help. By 22, as a young wife and mother, Miles suffered from a duodenal ulcer, due, in large part she relates, to the well-internalized core of her parents’ fundamentalism: to be a self is to be a sinner. “I, when I am ‘me,’ am a sinner” (23).

As Miles recounts, she has spent years undoing the damage wrought by this idea, slowly learning to catch and release the grip of hard-to-break habits, and to affirm her pleasures as vibrant sources of self-knowing.

Hasn’t Miles recovered?
At first glance, the choice of Augustine’s Confessions as a “model” for recovering from a fundamentalist childhood seems wildly ironic, and Miles knows it. Augustine is frequently blamed for formulating the very idea of the sinning self from which Miles suffers. Yet, as Miles unfolds her story alongside his, Augustine appears as more than a model for how to narrate a self. He appears as a character as well.

Prompted by the pain of her ulcer, Miles enters psychotherapy and returns to college, where she first reads the Confessions. While therapy invites her out of herself, it is the experience of reading Augustine that allows her to understand the ringing, stinging words of her youth as evocative descriptions of frustrated, conflicting desires. Augustine helps her hear the vocabulary of her childhood as her parents’ attempt to create a world whose every moment is infused with passion, significance, and even love.

It is not a world in which she can live, and Augustine guides her in making new moves. It is Augustine who teaches her that the proper response to our sinning selves is sorrow and sympathy—not punishment. It is Augustine who affirms that there are multiple possible interpretations of the Bible—not just her father’s. It is Augustine who identifies God as Life, Love, and Beauty—and not just a personified male. It is Augustine who guides her to see how God works through the desires and passions of our bodily selves—rather than judging us for having them. It is Augustine who encourages her, by his own example, to “relax a little” from herself, in humility. For as he repeats again and again, while on earth, we humans only see through a glass darkly.

Nevertheless, as Miles admits, Augustine only takes her so far. She writes, quoting Richard Rorty, that the real disabusing of harmful habits happens when we entertain “sparkling new ideas or utopian visions of glorious new institutions” (120). Miles needs a new god—a vision of love as something other than (self) sacrifice and renunciation.

In the final chapters of Fundaughter, Miles turns to one of Augustine’s inspirations, Plotinus, in whose writings she finds a vision of God as Beauty that guides her to this day. For Plotinus, Beauty is One, present in the interconnectedness of all that is. Providence is of the whole, indifferent to its particular parts. As such, our best attitude is to accept with gratitude the love that is present for us in the whole. As Miles describes—and I have known—she actively cultivates an ability to see Beauty in everything and everyone, even in the inextricable entwinings of grief and joy.

Doing so she knows: “I share in the circulation of love” (205), so much so that she can state, “I love being here” (218).
What then, are we to make of Miles claim that she is “still a fundamentalist”? As she tells it, she remains prey to habits of thinking and feeling that surface, uninvited and unannounced, pitting her against her desires and privileging (intellectual) work as the path to salvation.

Her honesty raises the question: why is it so difficult to reform habits of self-as-sinner thinking? Why do such self-harming patterns of sensing and responding to our own desires have such power? Why do they stick so tightly to our bodily selves?

As Miles describes, her only “sin” as a young girl was wanting love. Because she wanted love—from her parents in particular—she was willing to believe in their God, to be baptized in their community, and to submit to the Will they said was more holy than her own.

We are all vulnerable in just this way, for who isn’t born wanting love? This impulse to connect with others is so strong because our lives depend on it. Every human needs a nurturing touch in order to build body and brain capable of relating to the world in mutually life-sustaining ways. And it is an impulse that inevitably encounters moments when desire yawns open, unmet, and feelings of doubt, fear, anger and pain rush in. We feel what I call the sting of impossible desire (see Family Planting).

When suffering from this sting, a belief in one’s self as a sinner can be forcefully effective. It gives meaning to the pain (it is my fault); it prescribes action that I can do (deny my desires); it promises pleasure (of eventual reward). It allows a person to draw a line between good and evil that passes right through her or his bodily self, and pretend to stand on one side. The combination is addictive (and the hallmark of all addictions): we get pleasure out of denying our bodily selves. The more we deny our selves, the more pleasure is ours.

Such habits stick, in other words, because they work. And they work in a way that the philosopher Nietzsche astutely observed. Not only do they yield pleasure, they also destroy our ability to generate alternative, self-and-life-affirming values. They train our attention away from the sources of our creativity and freedom that are present in the beating and breathing of our bodily movement.

Is recovery possible? Once we understand how and why these habits stick, then we also know that there is no place or person or health to “recover.” Our only option is to engage and exercise the very same power of human creativity that gave rise to the beliefs and practices of “fundamentalism” in the first place. We need to create patterns of sensing and responding to the sting of impossible desire that affirm the pleasure and power of desire—even when unmet—as itself a source of wisdom.

How? Here, my work meets Miles’. It is a problem I have been writing about since leaving Harvard, as readers of this blog will know. In short: by cultivating a sensory awareness of the movements that we are making, we can begin to participate more consciously in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming. We can begin to find wisdom in our frustrated desires for food, sex, and spirit (see What a Body Knows), and learn to greet the challenges in our primary relationships as opportunities for discovering our capacity to love (see Family Planting).

We can find, in the energy of our desire, guidance in creating values and ideas that better align with what we need to become who we are and give what we have to give.

Interestingly, when read as Miles reads him, Augustine too is moving his readers towards a kind of conscious participation in their bodily becoming. He attends intently to his feelings of frustration and discomfort and disease, and insists on finding in them signs of a need to move differently—toward God. He seeks to transform or recreate the meaning of his pain, such that it becomes the enabling condition of his greatest pleasures.

And so does Miles. In writing, she too is transforming the meaning of her pain. While she may still be “a fundamentalist,” what it means to be one is far different for her now than it was when she was young, and is not at all what her parents had in mind. Her “fundamentalism” is an enabling condition of the freedom and understanding and pleasures she has found. In calling herself a “fundaughter,” she is naming herself, and bringing into being the world in which she wants to live. As did her parents.
We don’t just find Beauty, we make it. We participate in its unfolding, as best and as consciously as we can. And because we do, the question is ours to ask: what will we create?  What are we creating? The health and well-being of our selves, our communities, and our planet are at stake.

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