He Who Has A Why: Finding Your Purpose In Addiction Recovery
After reflecting on the power of gratitude and our unique spiritual beliefs to fuel individual narratives of recovery, the power of desire to inspire us, and the necessity of staying engaged in the world around us to ward off addiction’s isolating thrall, I’ve now found myself inspired to move on to the idea of purpose.
Of course, I’m far from the first to philosophize on the purpose of this strange little life of ours, or to have realized that having a cause to connect to or a passion to throw yourself into can be the thing that brings many back from the brink, or keeps others from the edge.
But, as I discovered when I recently listened to the episode of the science podcast Hidden Brain linked to in the source section, psychological purpose is actually something that can be measured, and that has distinct physical as well as psychological benefits.
To start with the physical, more purposeful people lived longer lives, recovered faster from surgeries, had less psychosomatic symptoms, had lower rates of cognitive decline and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and had lower incidence of heart attacks or strokes.
On the psychological side, being purposeful seems to put a person on a kind of emotional even keel, as they were less affected by stressors and the ordinary ups and downs of everyday life. They also tended to have higher incomes and net worth, broader and deeper social networks, lower levels of impulsivity, and even appeared more attractive to others.
So where might you find yourself one of these handy-dandy purposes? For one thing, it isn’t as simple as setting a goal: though our goals can spring from our purpose, a goal is not a purpose itself, and may even distract from it.
On Hidden Brain, host Shankar Vedantam suggests that people might find their purposes in one of three ways:
- In pursuing a passion or a hobby,
- In observing someone else with a strong sense of purpose and drawing inspiration from their example, or
- In response to a major, often traumatic, life event
It’s in this third possibility that the connection to recovery becomes most obvious, and where I find today’s meditation tying back into my ongoing reflection on the impossible search for meaning in suffering as profound as that can be brought about by addiction.
In one memorable quote, originally put forth by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in his “Twilight of the idols” and later popularized by Victor Frankl in his “Man’s Search For Meaning”, the former philosopher suggested that ”’He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’
And if anyone has a right to echo that sentiment, it’s Frankl, whose own work was inspired by his time in Auschwitz concentration camp.
“If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete,” he writes.
“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life.”
The three potential deeper “meanings” that Frankl puzzles out as possibilities are purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty, all concepts that are easily applicable to recovery and to the twelve steps. In holding true to the hard work of recovery in spite of how difficult it can be to stay sober, we show our love for others by refusing to act in the compulsive ways that we know would cause them pain.
According to Aristotelian theory, even in our darkest tragedies, the fall is never pure loss. Shakespeare’s King Lear, for instance, only found his empathy when he found sorrow. Hearing about it from his ivory tower wasn’t enough; he had to feel that storm on his skin.
In other words, there is to be found some “increase in awareness” or “gain in self-knowledge” in even the most miserable ordeal. For those in recovery, often, that increase in awareness takes the form of an insight into the condition that could only come from personal experience.
While it’s also possible that you’ll find a purpose or passion that has nothing to do with addiction, if you ever find yourself losing sight of the “why” that keeps you in recovery, giving back to others who are currently struggling could be a great place to start.