Guest Post: Addiction, Alypius and the Gladiators

This is a guest post by Reid Litchfield

Alypius 1 was a life-long friend of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. Both were born in the 4th century in Numidia (current Algeria) which was part of Roman North Africa.  They were converted to Christianity together while studying in Milan. Though revered as a Saint of the Catholic Church, there was a time in his life when Alypius seemed hopelessly enslaved to an addiction of the most unlikely sort.  Augustine describes the plight of his friend better than I could ever hope to.

He had gone on to Rome before me to study law . . . and there he was carried away again with an incredible passion for the gladiatorial shows.

For, although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows.

He protested to them: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”

When they heard this, they dragged him on in, probably interested to see whether he could do as he said. When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness.

Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body.

Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor which had entered through his ears and unlocked his eyes to make way for the wounding and beating down of his soul, which was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness–delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust.

He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.

And yet from all this, with a most powerful and most merciful hand, thou didst pluck him and taught him not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee–but not till long after.”   2

Addiction

Addiction is “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming to such an extent that cessation causes severe trauma”. Though the allure of watching slaves and criminals battle to the death is hardly on our top ten list of addictions to watch out for, the story of Alypius illustrates how susceptible the human brain is to addiction. A review of the diagnostic criteria for addiction (here) makes it pretty clear that its not just nicotine, alcohol or drugs that have addictive potential. Most of us wouldn’t think of work, shopping, Facebook, texting, or video games as being much more of an addictive threat than gladiatorial games. But this lack of respect is disarming and very dangerous. In reality, addiction is so multifaceted that it holds the potential to threaten most of us. Addiction is a lot like eBay–there’s something for everyone.

Parallels between the story of Alypius and the modern plague of pornography should be obvious  (GBH’s watershed talk here; Dallin H. Oaks here). One look was all it took for Alypius to be drawn in. Spurred on with curiosity “he opened his eyes and was struck with a [deep] wound in his soul” that took him years to recover from. The exact words could be used to describe those ensnared by pornography.

In his Conference talk on addiction a few years ago, M. Russell Ballard described addiction as surrender. He said “any kind of addiction is to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent”. Surrender to anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry. It is a moment Satan instantly recognizes; he will immediately move in to seize control. Elder Ballard went on to teach that the cause of the disease and its remedy are different faces of the same coin:

“Ask him for the strength to overcome the addiction you are experiencing. Set aside all pride and turn your life and heart to Him.”

As we surrender to our addiction we are enslaved by it. On the other hand, as we surrender to God, He liberates us.

A Modern Example of Addiction

The story of Alypius’ addiction to gladiatorial games in the waning years of the Roman Empire has me thinking about human susceptibility to addiction in general.

When I lived in Boston, I was the Home Teacher of a man that became addicted to crack cocaine.  My friend was not the kind of guy you think of when you say ‘crackhead’.  He was smart, sophisticated and wealthy. He lived in a luxury high-rise apartment downtown.  He had worked for years as an auditor for multinational accounting firm. When he found the church he was all in; he was totally passionate about the gospel. On one visit I could tell there had been a significant change in my friend.  Over the next few months he opened up to me about his problems with drugs. He told me that he tried crack cocaine once, and knew immediately that he was hopelessly addicted. His love for God and the gospel took a back seat. I watched on rather helplessly as he gradually withered. Though I tried to keep in touch after I moved to Nevada, he wasn’t interested. His addiction worsened and became more complex. Ultimately he died young, angry and bitter.
You cannot become addicted to cocaine without trying it first; you can’t become a slave of the Colosseum without going to watch the games. Alypius’ problems didn’t begin with a decision to go see Christians be covered in pitch, crucified and then set ablaze, or sewn into animal hides and left to be torn to pieces by starving lions. My friend’s fight to the death with drugs began when he threw caution to the wind and allowed another addict to talk him into buying the drugs they could then share. What my friend and Alypius had in common on day one of their individual battles with addiction was an arrogance that made them feel invulnerable to something they both knew was wrong.

Trusting in Our Own Strength

Augustine said that Alipius’ soul “was more audacious than truly valiant–also it was weaker because it presumed on its own strength when it ought to have depended on Thee.” The line that separates being valiant from being audacious is sometimes pretty thin.  To be valiant is to show courage, determination and excellence.  Audaciousness is a willingness to take bold risks, usually while showing impudent lack of respect to custom or prevailing wisdom. Alypius confidently proclaimed: “Though you drag my body to that place and set me down there, you cannot force me to give my mind or lend my eyes to these shows. Thus I will be absent while present, and so overcome both you and them.”  But this valiant exterior was just the facade of an audacious young man that had too much confidence in himself, and too little respect for Satan.

If audaciousness and excessive self-confidence sets the stage for our addictions, then it is supplemented by forgetting the we aren’t supposed to face these challenges alone:

“[The Lord] knows the mistakes we can so easily make: to underestimate the forces working for us and to rely too much on our human powers. And so He offers us the covenant to “always remember Him” and the warning to “pray always” so that we will place our reliance on Him, our only safety.” 3

In Augstine’s account of the addiction of Alypius, he also highlighted the way of out the nightmare in which Alypius was trapped. It seems that Augustine scooped every 12-step program ever published by pointing out that the Lord rescued Alypius and taught him “not to rest his confidence in himself but in thee”. As he did so, Alypius walked away from one master into the arms of Another.

Art Credits:

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), 1872 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ)

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863 by Jean-Léon Gérôme (Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, MD)

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Reid Litchfield is a full-time husband, father and endocrinologist from Henderson, Nevada with too many hobbies and not enough time. www.reidlitchfield.com

Notes:

  1. He is also referred to as Saint Alypius of Thasgate
  2. Augustine – Confessions VI;8:13
  3. Elder Henry B. Eyring, Always, CES Fireside (Oct Ensign 1999)
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Addiction, Alypius and the Gladiators

  1. Meg, there appears to be a problem with the first picture/graphic in the post. The second one displays well.

  2. I don’t know if you can technically “surrender” to an addiction. Surrender implies choice, and in addiction, there is no choice. But you can surrender to something before it becomes an addiction.

  3. Great article. I was particularly struck by this line:

    “In his Conference talk on addiction a few years ago, M. Russell Ballard described addiction as surrender. He said ‘any kind of addiction is to surrender to something, thus relinquishing agency and becoming dependent’. Surrender to anything other than God is tantamount to idolatry.”

    You see, I am a recovering sex addict. I have struggled with masturbation for over 26 years, since I was 17 years old. And, when I joined the Marine Corps a year and a half later, I was introduced to pornography and have been hopelessly addicted to it ever since. I had ‘surrendered’ to it and once caught up in its chains, I could not, for the life of me, extract myself.

    Over the years, I went and confessed to countless bishops and put into practice their counsel of ‘pray more, read the scriptures more, go to my church meetings, etc., etc.’ I even went to counseling a few times. Absolutely NOTHING worked for very long and each time I relapsed, I became more and more hopeless until one day I found that I had basically given up the fight and had decided that I couldn’t overcome it and that I was just damned to Hell and that was that. I thought I was beyond help, beyond redemption and that there was something seriously wrong with me.

    Then, in April of 2013, my wife came home early from church and caught me acting out. Although I was horribly embarrassed and ashamed, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. My wife had heard from a friend of hers about the Church’s PASG 12-step program and her friend’s husband had experienced great success in overcoming his addiction by attending meetings and working the steps. Even though I wasn’t convinced that the program could help ME, her ultimatum convinced me to at least start going to meetings and start working the program myself.

    At first, I was extremely skeptical, but as time went on and I kept attending meetings, I was struck, not only with the lengths of some of these guys’ sobriety, but with their general demeanor. They seemed peaceful, happy, even joyous, and that seemed so far from my experience over the last couple decades that I could hardly believe that they were actually addicts. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to put my heart and soul into working the program. I kept attending meetings and worked on getting some sobriety under my belt. I was able to get 69 days before I eventually relapsed.

    What I didn’t know at the time was the difference between true sobriety and the ‘white-knuckled’ variety. I realized later on that what I had been doing was pretty much the same thing I had been doing throughout the last 26 years. I had been trying with all my might to stay sober and was relying completely on my own strength to do so. After that relapse, I became despondent again, stopped going to meetings, and fell back into my addiction big-time.

    About 3 months later, my brother told me of a program that was based on the Church’s ARP program and helped you get through all 12 steps in about 90 days. I signed up on their website at arpsupport.org, was assigned a sponsor, and started working the program. The program consisted of a commitment to, first of all, stay sober the entire 90+ days. Also, a commitment to doing the assigned step work each morning and writing in a journal every evening. I sent these assignments and journal entries to my sponsor every morning and evening. I also committed to attending at least 2 PASG, ARP, SA or other 12-step meetings each week.

    It was a lot of work and was not easy, but as I worked diligently on my stepwork each day and, not only that, started to implement the principles of the 12 steps in my life, I started to see a change in the way I dealt with temptations, urges, negative emotions, feelings, triggers, etc. Instead of fighting them, I acknowledged them and then I started surrendering them to the Lord. As time went on, I became better and better at doing this and I started to feel like I was ‘getting it’, meaning that I was understanding how to access the atonement and grace of Jesus Christ and rely on His strength and power to keep me sober. It was amazing! For the first time in decades, I felt truly hopeful that I could overcome this addiction once and for all. Then I relapsed.

    It was November 30th of 2013, and I was working through Step 4 at the time. Step 4 is a very difficult step and it can bring up a LOT of negative emotions that will make the addict in you SCREAM for the opportunity to act out in order to experience some relief, however temporary. I ended up relapsing that day, but this time felt different. I didn’t let myself spiral down into oblivion. You see, I KNEW that the program was working. I had experienced it! I analyzed the relapse and what led up to it, and I realized that while I was working so hard on Step 4, I had forgotten to continue to work the first 3 steps diligently. I called my sponsor, told him about the relapse, and started the program over again.

    This time around, I continued to diligently put into practice the principles I had learned from working the first 3 steps. I said a ‘Surrender Prayer’ each and every time I started to feel triggered or even if I thought something MIGHT trigger me. I was absolutely strict in observing this practice. Staying sober started to become easier and easier the more fully I humbled myself and relied upon the Lord to keep me sober.

    Today, I have just shy of 14 months of true sobriety. I rarely struggle with temptations and while I don’t have to say as many surrender prayers as I did at the beginning of my sobriety, I am just as vigilant about saying them when I need to. If someone had told me back in April of 2013 that I would be standing her today with 14 months of sobriety, I would have laughed derisively. I have learned for myself that, like the Israelites of old who were healed by simply looking at a brazen serpent on a staff, staying sober becomes easy when you look to Christ to keep you sober. His yoke truly is easy and His burden is light. He is the way. There IS no other. If you are suffering from addiction and want relief, do what I have done: start going to meetings, get a sponsor, work the steps, but most importantly, rely on the Source of all light, our Savior, Jesus Christ. He CAN and WILL help you overcome and you will experience such peace and joy that you will NEVER want to go back to that life again.

  4. Hopefully I’ve fixed the graphic. I liked this post. Somewhat horrifying that a Christian could become so addicted to the slaughter of humans in the Roman circus.

  5. My favorite scene in Schindlers List is where the Nazis are rounding up the Jews from the ghettos and start playing the piano. It’s Spielberg indicating that these aren’t monsters. That would be too easy. These are real people who have come to accept what is horrible.

    What we should always keep in mind is how easy that sort of thing is. The Germans were considered the height of civilization. We all can come to justify the unacceptable.

    The common refrain should be “there but for the grace of God go I.” We therefore should constantly be doing a person inventory of our actions and judging ourselves. When we cease to do that we can get caught up in the mob which rarely is self-reflexive.

  6. Reid, awesome article, thank you!! Also, Aaron, thank you for sharing your very personal journey with sexual addiction, and giving people a taste of “life with an addiction.” I think it’s difficult sometimes for non-addicts to truly understand the intenseness of addictions and how destructive and all encompassing they can be. Great job for being 14 months sober!

  7. Thank you, Sherry. I just want to give people who may be addicts themselves some hope. Sobriety is wonderful! 🙂

  8. A few thoughts:

    1. Addiction is a complex disease. It cannot be reduced to mere audaciousness as the cause (though I doubt that was Reid’s intention). We still do not fully know why some people get caught in the throes of addiction while others can get a “taste” and simply walk away. Factors are manifold: socioeconomics, broken families, rebelliousness, age of first exposure, biological, cognitive, etc. etc. Addiction is primarily a spiritual disease and, as such, requires spiritual resolution. The 12 Steps, though not for everyone, is truly an inspired program that includes, even demands, a connection to a Higher Power and the steps of repentance.

    2. We are witnessing a surge in addiction all around us and it takes many

  9. Ugh. I hit a button accidentally and sent my post prematurely…

    2. ….and it takes many forms. What is the culprit of these addictions? The answer is technology. Consider that back in the 1850s the average in one consumption of cigarettes/tobacco was 40 PER YEAR. Now smokers easily consume that many in one day. Resources were more inaccessible back in the day, but then add in MASS production, MASS distribution, and MASS marketing, and WHAM! Technology floods our homes competing for our time and attention, and society/the world is suddenly faced with numerous choices available next door or a click away just for the taking.

    3. I believe The Lord withheld technology from humanity for millenia until this present dispensation because He knew so many of His children would be enslaved and destroyed by addictions spurred on by technology. Technology has created unimaginable advancements but Satan has successfully exploited it as well. I’m afraid that we’ll see generations of kids with wasted talents due to poor choices related to technology. But I’m also certain that the “Hope of Israel” is among us.

  10. This was a great post! I find it infuriating that pornographers still try to hide behind the First Amendment even though no reasonable person could argue that that’s what the founding fathers intended. Not knowing how depraved society would become, they would certainly not be on the side of men who prey on vulnerable women and children (whether as pornographic subjects or victims of the consumers of pornography).

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