Of course, you’ve said that before; more times than you can remember. Sometimes you said it by rote, because it was what needed to be said to whomever was standing in front of you (or across a desk from you) at the time. It was one of your tools, one of your lies. And you were good at lying, that can’t be denied. Hiding evidence, feigning shock, changing subjects, faking attention, staring blankly, pretending to feel pain: those were skills, learned over the years and honed to near perfection.
Not total perfection, though, because if you were perfect at them, then you would have been able to continually and easily lie to yourself, and it would have become second nature, and you wouldn’t have ever slipped up. But, thank God, you never did get that expert at lying to yourself, and so the truth would slip out, and you’d have to admit your sin, your addiction, your rationalization, your habit, to yourself–or to someone else. And so that led to those select times when you talked about cutting off your hand (generally metaphorically, of course, but a couple of desperate times, almost-if-not-quite literally) and really meant it; nothing rote about the words then. Saying those things (to yourself, or worse, to others) really hurt, and you’d do just about anything to avoid getting to that point, but it was also almost always a hopeful and gladdening experience when you did, when that desire to end things, to remake things, to resolve things, welled up in you firm and clear. Because then you’d felt like you were finally going to try to live up to what you publicly professed to believe, to what you’d built your relationships and your own self-understanding upon. You felt good.
And things were good, or they often were, anyway. It’s not like your hand kept getting in the way of, kept distracting, kept poisoning, everything. Truth is, you sometimes put it in your pocket or put it behind your back and forgot it was there for…well, for weeks. Months. Even years. There were even those times (not that many, perhaps, but more than you really want to confess, just the same) that you took your hand out just to try it out, to have some fun, with every intention of putting it right back again, and that’s exactly what you did. You always–or, at least, for as long as you can remember–knew that the old saw about being able to stop anytime you want was false, but sometimes it seemed true, and that seeming was enough to give one part of you sufficient justification to keep on with the way things were. After all, it’s not like the fun–the thrill, the risk, the pleasure, the reward–wasn’t real. It wasn’t a false feeling; Satan’s not that bad at his job. And who doesn’t like being able to make use of their skills? Over the years you’d successfully mastered schedules, erased entries, moved money, cracked codes, treaded silently, changed stories, practiced excuses; talent like that is there to be used, right? Well, that’s what you told yourself–always with a bit of honest self-deprecation, thank goodness, but you did think it nonetheless.
So why is this time any different? Because the stakes have been raised, of course. And that was another thing you had always told yourself–that if the stakes were high enough, you’d go through with it, you’d cut off the hand. It’d be an offering to the Lord, and you really meant those words: you meant every Old Testament word of that language, even though such language doesn’t really fit with what you believe, or think you believe, any more. But meaning it and doing it are two different things, you know? Over the years the stakes for you and your family have been raised multiple times, and the blessings you’ve experienced as you all made your way through those times of trial and doubt were real, and indicative where you needed to go and what was expected of you as well, and through it all you compartmentalized, you focused on something other than your secret, your sin. Well, except when you wondered if you weren’t being punished for keeping it around, even if it wasn’t a problem (though sometimes it was), even if it was under control (though sometimes it wasn’t), even if it was one of those times when you’d almost forgotten it was there (of course you never really did). It’s the same thing with your mission; as honest and as authentic your own struggles to assess and come to peace with your mission may have been, there was always the possibility that maybe they were–that maybe it was–compromised from the start, however much you managed your own thinking at the time, and your recollections since. But the point is, all through that, all through the trials and resolutions, all through the raising and lowering of stakes, you always managed to avoid the worst: you were never truly a prisoner of your struggles, and you were never fully convicted either. It remained something that you always believed you had time to do something about.
And now, well, you know that’s not true, don’t you? It was a shock to realize that you ever actually believed it, or allowed some part of you to tell yourself that you believed it, when you received the phone call, when you came home, when there was the note on your door, and it all exploded, and you figured you’d finally done it, finally lost it all. Perhaps the ways you’ve been blessed without having fully repented, without having really been honest to those who care for you most, without having finally set things straight, made it easier to pull that long-running delusion off. But then that delusion collapsed, along with everything else. The stakes were as high as they’d ever been, and the fall from their heights hurt worse than anything you’ve ever experienced. You were scared; no, you were terrified, you were inconsolable, you were paralyzed and devastated. And now you’re here.
Twice before in your life your contradictory impulses–your affection for your affliction on the one hand, your consternation over it on the other–had put you into a crisis, had demanded a confession, had called upon all those old despairing feelings about cutting off your hand. But perhaps the third time really is the charm. Because this time you’re not lying to the good man sitting across the desk from you (and he is a good man, even if he is younger than you and you can catalogue all sorts of reasons not to listen to how he interprets the scriptures open between you). This time you’re still going to the meetings, you’re following the 12 steps, over and over again. This time you’re writing blog posts about what’s actually on your mind. This time you’re staying in touch with and being honest with those friends who have gone through many of the same things, and some worse ones; you’re partaking of their sense of humor and balance and forgiveness and perspective, all of which you’ve sorely lacked (a lack that has affected those who love and care for you, as they warped themselves without realizing it so as to relate to a person who always kept something hidden, one hand tucked safely away, or who if they knew about the hand had been fooled by you into never talking about it). This time it’s working. You’re repenting; you’re changing. About time, you grown-up, you responsible adult, you father, you happily married man. About damn time.
You already miss it, a little bit. You know you always will (addicts don’t get cured; they just stop indulging). Even if the insistent impulse is overcome through a change of heart, even if your occasional, almost instinctive pulling out of your hand goes away for so long you don’t even remember what it feels like to use it or what you enjoyed about it in the first place, you’ll never forget the desire, the rush, the craving: that’s locked into yourself too deep. It’s your old acquaintance, one that will always come to mind. You and your sin have covered too much distance together, going back to days much too long ago, to expect any mortal repentance to make it truly disappear. Someday, you hope (a hope that goes back to when you first discovered C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, the work of apologetics you’ve read more often than any other), it’ll be burned away, transformed by an angel into something not fallen, something holy and whole and divine. Until then, it’s your burden, your consequence, your reminder. You’ll always be able to look down at where the hand used to be, and know it may reappear to take your other hand in its own at anytime. And that’s all right. There are worse fates than to have this sort of acquaintance. Everyone has their thorn; this might as well be yours.