A failure to love

I’m still alive.

I’ve been struggling. But I’m still struggling; I haven’t given up.

I hit the ground hard not long after my last post, right at 120 days. I don’t even remember what pulled me down. I was stressed out and anxious, and a temptation and new fascination slipped under my skin. I lost a lot of hope after that. I keep falling — but I keep getting up. The longest stand I’ve made since then was twenty-something days. Counting days no longer seems to matter as much.

But I have been growing. The falls, by and large, have not been as low or as frequent, and the recoveries have been sooner and stronger. I need to do better at resisting temptation: when I get low, I am still really vulnerable. But I have been growing, and learning, and coming to realizations.

The real choice at hand is not between chastity and sex, or between love and lust, or even between love and not-love: it’s between love and hate. I of all people am wary of black and white characterizations; but gray so often is a path to compromise. And the two choices are diametrically opposed — not even like two poles; they are not even like each other. When I love someone, I am willing, even joyful, to wait to experience her body, until we can share in each other wholly and licitly. I am glad to give her dignity and honor and respect; to give to her as a person and not just take from her as an object.

For pornography is the opposite: a taking, an exploitation. Sure, in a sense, she is “giving”; but as it involves me, the aspect is completely opposed to the mutual giving and taking, the sharing, that makes a real and loving relationship. When I step out to take from someone else, from a thousand anonymous someone-elses, it is not an act of love for anyone — not even of self-love, since if I really loved myself, I would save myself for what is true. It’s the opposite of love. If I loved those women, I would want to see them clothed in dignity and not degraded and exploited.

Jesus calls me to love all people. And to give in to this sin, the greatest demon in my life, is the utmost failure to love. I love my Lord, and long to be filled up with His love. Lord Jesus, Son of God, please have mercy on me, a sinner.

Pillars of salt

Day 102.

I am really hurting. And I’m looking back…

I have no illusions of being at the top of the mountain. I know I still have so far to go. But when I turn and look behind, I can see how far I’ve climbed, how far down it is — and what a slippery slope even taking one step backward would put me on.

At this distance, I can see and understand a bit more clearly. I know that falling back into porn and masturbation wouldn’t give me what I’m really longing for; that it would be, at best, a narcotic. Temptation suggests that I could do “just a little”; that I could slip into it for some temporary relief and get up again; but I know that that’s not true. The relief is only relief because it is oblivion; it consumes me and drowns out the pain, along with everything else: every hope, every desire, every good.

Yesterday I slipped, not into porn or masturbation, but into its client state: the kingdom of real girls whom I’d made into objects of fantasy; real people on Facebook whose lives I’d nosed into through their publicly-posted photos. I revisited some of my old favorites, for the first time since I began this stand. It didn’t progress any further than that, but it reawakened a longing: to know girls; to have a life. One of them had gotten engaged — it happens all too often among these young, pretty, evangelical women. That’s a life I missed, the voice says; because I wasn’t an evangelical; because I didn’t go to a Christian school; because I was never a part of any such church or family. And the voice says I could have had that, but was denied it; and it urges me to take it for myself, or to make it — at least the facsimilated fantasy of it. To acquire and cultivate relationships with these girls again, these girls whom I will never really know. And one by one, they will all get married…

Those girls are relatively benign; but as I long for a deeper intimacy, for a fulfillment of the desires that the fantasies stir but cannot fulfill, it inevitably leads back to porn. And there, the desire for empire is an essential part of it. The reason why I’ve been standing for over a hundred days, despite having free access to the Internet through the limited means of my phone, is that I’ve given up my throne: the great hoard of gigabytes upon gigabytes that I collected and ruled over. And knowing that that exists somewhere outside my reach is an inhibition against starting over. How could I start over, knowing that I couldn’t add to the trove I worked so hard to build before? Of course, logically, I could join anything new I accrued to my stash later; but it doesn’t work that way in my mind. How could I know I wasn’t collecting things I already had? No, thus far, I have been unwilling to cross that line.

If it were within my reach, I don’t think I could resist right now. As much as I know it is a lie, that that life holds nothing but pain, I miss that sweet narcosis. I love my Lord and I want to please Him, but right now, I have lost sight of hope. Why am I doing this? Why do I have to be clean? I know, truthfully, that purity is freedom from slavery, and that is a reward in itself, but some days it is so hard. The voice says to take for myself what I haven’t been given — that is the essence of all sexual sin, in fact — and it would be so easy, wouldn’t it?

It is a comfort to me to suffer this week, as I remember that my Lord suffered for me.

Chase the nightly shades away

Anthony: What Is the Point of All This? The Devil: There Is No Point! (plate 18)
Anthony: “What Is the Point of All This?
The Devil: “There Is No Point!”

Day 87.

Every night this week, I’ve dreamed I’ve fallen back into porn.

I am still standing, doggedly. Ninety days will be a landmark. But on a daily basis now, I combat thoughts of how “nice” it was, how much easier, how much more “natural,” it was to live in those habits. Seeing a pretty girl — and there are so many — the “natural” impulse is to retreat into a private place with her, through fantasy and masturbation. I consciously crave the false intimacy which, though false, was such a compelling substitute.

My memory of the dreams doesn’t last long, usually. I remember the one from last night, and bits and pieces from others. The one from last night was disturbing because — and this is characteristic of most of them, and of the patterns I was pursuing — it involved the sexualization — no, the pornification — of a real person. Not a real person whom I really, in real life, know, but in the dream she was real. She was a real person whom, in the dream, I liked and was attracted to; but rather than pursuing a real relationship with her, the dream made her into a fantasy, an “unreal” person on the Internet whose pornographic images and content I could download. It reveals what I, with horror, am coming to realize: that this had become the only way I knew to relate to women, in any sexual or romantic sense. It is, at its base, an attitude of exploitation rather than love.

Realizing these things makes me stronger to stand — knowing that, though “easier,” that is not how I want to live. Even in the dreams, I feel shame at having relapsed, and I awake to the relief of still standing. Jesus calls me to love — to love my neighbor as myself. I will walk in the light, as He is in the light — and I pray that His light can flood even the darkness of my dreams. Like a phantom appendage, now amputated, my unconscious brain continues to act out what had become anxious habit and reflex. O Lord, I need Your peace, to lay even that to rest.

Peace, Be Still

Day 75.

Thanks be to God, I am still standing.

More than ever before, I feel my attitudes changing, my heart being purified. I am more and more determined that I’m never going back.

There have been days when I’ve been weary, when I’ve longed for those things I’m giving up; when I’ve wondered why I’m doing it, why I need to turn away an intimacy and comfort that seems to be offered so freely. And I’ve prayed every day that God could turn my heart, that it could be reformed; that He could give me an answer to that question.

And this past Sunday, He did.

I have written before about the unspeakable peace that comes from Communion with my Lord in the Holy Eucharist; how I could be tempted, fully intending to go home and return to my sin, and then I receive Him — and this alien peace, something not of me at all, something entirely contrary to everything I was then feeling and desiring and thinking, takes hold of me, and the waters are stilled. Sunday I felt the same unrest — longing for those beautiful companions, the ones so willing to share their “art” with me. Why, Lord, do I have to let go of them forever?

And in that moment, the answer was there. A thought entirely foreign to me; something I had never thought of before, that didn’t come from my own reasoning; or if I had thought of it, or heard it, it had no meaning or effect to me — suddenly before me, carrying the weight of authority. Because what they’re offering isn’t for you.

I pray every day that He fill me up with His love, the love that transforms and overcomes all. And there it was. That lady is a person, a child of God. And what she’s offering is her dignity, her worth, her beauty — and that isn’t for you. She can offer it, and yes, it’s there for the taking — but it belongs to God, and to the lady; it’s not for me to feast on, to consume, to exploit, to use. It’s only meant to be shared with her husband, in a bond that excludes all others and can never be broken. And my eyes, my sharing in that — both take away something that isn’t mine to take, and give up something that is meant for someone else. It’s true. This is adultery. (cf. Matthew 5:28)

I had heard these words all my life, and they had never meant anything to me. And then, there in His presence, it was communicated to me and connected with me with a clarity and authority and power. And this wasn’t just a momentary, passing thought. It was a seed that has only grown; until now, where before I only felt a craving, an unprincipled lust held back only by knowledge of the pain it’s caused me, I now feel a love, a respect, a hurting for those girls — a desire to clothe the naked, to bind up the brokenhearted. Surely this is the work of God.

Penned

incarceratedDay 48.

There are changes going on in me.

More clearly than I’ve ever discerned it before, I am changing. I know very well that I can never “declare victory” — that this will be a fight I fight for the rest of my life — but more than ever before, I feel a growing distance between me and my addiction.

I’ve been this long before. A little more than a year ago, I went eighty days before falling. But I’m doing something different this time. This time, rather than mere avoidance — a beleaguered footrace, feeling the wolf’s hot breath on my heels — I feel a real separation. The wolf — which in truth, is in me — has been penned.

Or rather, I’ve allowed myself to be penned. I’ve given myself — and I give myself daily — to penance. My incarceration — this separation from the Internet — is not a punishment so much as a protection. And it is a submission — a voluntary act of giving up control, of surrendering myself and laying down my freedom. And yet I haven’t felt such freedom as this in years. Such self-control — the freedom to choose my own thoughts and actions.

And this is how it is in Christ. Jesus said that if we take his yoke upon us, we would find rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28–30). In that surrender of ourselves, placing our lives in the hands of a greater Master, we find a lighter burden than ever the world could give. I’ve never truly understood this before now — so bound to another master have I been.

Apples

cranach-adam-and-eve-1533The twenty-third day.

In this month’s Magnificat there is a reflection on charity as a fruit of the Spirit, contrasting it with the apple of original sin. At the beginning of this month, when I was caught in such a desperate struggle, its words became a rallying cry: What conquers sin and pride in our lives is not mere obedience but love-filled self-surrender to God. No one can avoid sin simply by willing it. The only way to avoid sin is to love, to have our lives transformed by acts of charity that overflow into the lives of others.

Lately I’ve been involved in some heated and unpleasant arguments with atheists on Facebook. Some people seem to enjoy argument, but it has only ever left me feeling bruised. Despite all my hardness, deep down I have a tender inside — and it’s that tenderness that the Lord has been striving to restore. It’s when I am loving others, not fighting, that I feel the most fulfilled, the closest to God. And I do believe that love is my path to healing.

I prayed this morning: Father, give me a tender heart, so that everything I say is full of tenderness and love, never anger or hate or polemic — that even my criticism is full of your love and mercy, and may always lead back to you.

No sooner had I prayed that than somebody responded to an apologetic argument I’d left on another blog. I will respond in charity, I said.

I checked out the person’s blog solely to find out if he was a boy or girl, to know whether to respond to my “brother” or “sister.” But what I found was an eyeful. I hadn’t read very far in the very first post before I came upon quite an explicit description of a casual sexual encounter.

I felt my cheeks flush, my heart burning inside me. I’m going to fall, I thought. I am so vulnerable. But I stopped. I didn’t have to fall. It was my choice. And I chose to hold on to my Christ.

I did respond in charity to my brother. I don’t know what was up with that person or with his blog, and I didn’t read any further to find out. But it did cause me to think, and led me to write this post:

In that moment I thought, I miss that. Will I ever have that again? And then I thought, Do I need that? Do I really even want that? My struggle for so long has been one that confused love and intimacy with sex and nudity: but I’m finally beginning to realize, I think, through a willingness to give all of that up, how seductively false those misconceptions are.

Pornography, nudity unbridled from true intimacy, will never fulfill. The parade of hundreds of women, not one of whom I’ll ever have a true connection with, is only a cruel mockery of the longing for that intimacy and of the unalienable beauty and dignity of the human person. Casual sex, sexuality unbridled from love, will never fulfill. It only hitches my heart to a random tractor, to have a precious bit of substance ripped from the socket, until there can be no real attachment there at all.

So I give all of that up, consciously, voluntarily. Just as I’m giving up my free passage on the Internet, I give up my freedom to consume myself with those false gods. The analogue is a sacrament: my giving up the Internet in submission to my parents is like a vow of obedience in submission to a superior, to God Himself. My giving up pornography is a vow of chastity. As the Catechism teaches, The [evangelical counsels] are intended to remove whatever is incompatible with charity. The aim of the counsels is to remove whatever might hinder the development of charity, even if it is not contrary to it (CCC 1973). Where I am now calls for strong medicine. Even if having a relationship with somebody, someday, is not contrary to charity, I give up the pursuit of that now, for the kingdom, that the Lord can birth charity in me, that I might be healed. Lord my God, fill me up with your charity!

His Peace

EucharistThe power of the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist never ceases to overwhelm me. How one moment I can be lost at sea with temptation, anxious to get home from church so I can voraciously dig back into my sin; how I can’t keep my eyes off women, and don’t really want to; how I can be feeling like hell, smothering under the weight of depression, feeling not a bit the presence of God in my life, entertaining the thought that all of this is bogus, all too aware that I’m not living my life as if I really believed in Him, so maybe I don’t really believe at all…

Receiving Him, going back to my pew, kneeling; not really feeling anything. Oh, well. It’s not about whether I feel anything or not; my faith is not built on feeling. Sometimes I am just depressed. I can’t expect to feel something all the time…

And then the next moment, out of nowhere — total peace. All of my despondent thoughts laid to rest. All of my hurts, all of my fears, laid down. My temptations: Suddenly I find myself bowing before the Almighty. Those sins slipping from my humbled hands, being laid on the altar. Those things I wanted to do seem so insignificant now, before His grace. And I am overwhelmed. Someone is here, with me, inside me. I feel my mind, my heart being conformed to Him. Becoming Him. His flesh is my flesh; His mind, my mind.

I tell myself this is just something psychological; that I feel these things because I want to feel these things; that I lay down my sins because I want to lay them down. But that moment: Even when my faith is at its lowest, He overwhelms me. Every single time.