"When was it that we saw you in prison," the righteous will ask the Promised One, "and went to visit you?" "Truly, I tell you," will come the answer, "just as you did it to one of the least who are members of my family, you did it to me."
Jesus saw value in every human being. This included not only those who followed him; not only those who rejected him, handing him over to be executed; but also those too caught up in their own personal pain to care one way or another. The poor, the sick, the homeless, those in prison--these were all vessels of the Divine, each one worthy of being loved.
For years I heard the Fifth Steps of addicts working their way through the Twelve Step recovery program. Literally, hundreds of them. The Fifth Step entails a moral inventory of one's life--resentments, fears, sex conduct, harm done to others--and the sharing of that inventory before God and another human being. I heard horrific stories of violence, depraved obsessions, and the blind and desperate attachment to the next drink or the next fix. It seemed that there was barely anything 'human' left in the 'beings' sitting before me.
But even worse than the stories of their addiction were the stories of the tragic conditions that led to the addiction in the first place: child abuse or neglect; warped parental role models; the seeds of self-doubt and self-hatred planted by adults who failed to love them. It was these stories that haunted me even more than the harm they did to others while in their addiction. They were themselves harmed, and sometimes egregiously, which made a certain kind of sense of their addiction, to escape the pain and trauma of their young lives.
But there was also a disconnect in the stories I heard. The addict was slowly gaining his or her life back, picking up from where they left off the fateful day they had their first taste of their chosen substance. Sitting before me, speaking their honest truth, they were open and vulnerable, like a child inhabiting the body of an adult. As they revealed to me the shattering details of their childhood and the damning behaviours of their addiction, they themselves were the picture of innocence. "Who was that person," many asked, when they were done, shaking their heads in disbelief.
The point is, behind the addiction, with its incessant appetite and its tyrannical control, the real person was still in there, and had been, all along. The caring capable person they were created to be had gone into hiding while the addict took over, running roughshod over every tender feeling and sensible instinct. The two couldn't coexist.
Take Mitch T. He's the recovering drug addict, former gang affiliate, and ex-felon I spoke with for this week's episode of The Mystic Cave. He too had a sad tale to tell of his upbringing, including an alcoholic father who left the family and only made things worse whenever he stepped back in. Unable to express his feelings about the fear and chaos of his childhood, Mitch began making what he now calls "bad choices," one after another, until he had dug for himself a hole so deep it landed him in a penitentiary, serving a sixteen-year sentence. There, he received a vicious beating that put him into a coma, almost killing him.
But all the time, Little Mitch, the scared child within, was wondering when it might be safe enough to emerge, to come out from hiding and take up the un-lived life the addict had left behind. Now, after years of painful recovery of both body and soul, Mitch the innocent child and Mitch the wised-up adult are back together, working to steer young people away from the path Mitch the addict had followed.
Stories like Mitch's are dramatic. We could make the mistake of dissociating from them and thinking that our lives are nothing like that. We grew up intact. We didn't have troubling childhoods or compounding addiction issues. Maybe not. But the person within--the person we were created to be--waits inside each of us for the conditions to be right to come out, shine our light, and gift the world with our presence. It takes courage and faith to become our true selves, sometimes against great odds. Mitch's story is but one version of our own.
This episode of The Mystic Cave: "Getting Free: Mitch T's Recovery from Drugs, Gangs, and Crime." [Just press Play in the box below to listen to this episode ...]