Redemption is a subject near and dear to my heart, for personal reasons. I was never an addict, mind you, but (alarmingly long ago now) I experienced my own rock bottom.
Most people who talk seriously about hitting rock bottom know that by using the term they’re participating in a bit of lousy and misleading rhetoric. There is no “bottom” but the bottom of a grave. So long as you live, rock bottom is a state of mind, a series of events that precipitate an awakening, however brief.
The “rock” is right on the money, however. One minute you’re sleepwalking, unaware of the fog, and all of a sudden you smack face-first into something. The fog lifts as soon as you become aware of it, and you see that you weren’t sleepwalking at all, but rather sinking in quicksand.
The “bottom” is also dubious because of how radically different—even seemingly trivial from the outside—the “rock” can be. Some people undergo the worst pitfalls of addiction, suffer the worst bodily harm and emotional loss and alienation, but never hit rock bottom. Others encounter some minor setback, or not even that, and hit rock bottom and bounce hard. My own “rock” would no doubt seem similarly insignificant to most. I simply saw, at a moment when someone trusted me, a reflection in myself of someone I truly hated. It was jarring, and a jarring is what a sleeper requires to awaken, though they as often as not go right back to sleep.
Along with redemption, I am interested in redeemers.
Redeemers are rather more valuable than those in need of redemption, in spite of how attitudes have changed about such people. When I think of redeemers, I think of John the Baptist. He lived in the wild, he ate grasshoppers, he was kind of an emaciated raving wacko, but he was unflinching in his righteousness and generous in his forgiveness, for those who asked of it. Or so the stories go!
I’m no biblical scholar, but to my amateur eyes old John seems to form a type, existing in storytelling well before the Bible, of the man who has found wisdom in madness. I can already hear the protests that John was not in fact supposed to be mad, and I’m sure that’s right, though he looked the part. No, John was much more like Diogenes the Cynic, who scorned human artifice and found wisdom in his poverty (we will not say “humble conditions” for humility was not a Greek virtue and certainly not one of his).
The great redeemer of Christian culture is, of course, Jesus Christ himself. What Christ shared with Diogenes and John the Baptist was a connection with some source of wisdom. For Christ it was his divine nature. For John it was divinity as discovered in the life of the ascetic; for Diogenes it was in nature itself.
Unfortunately these days we tend to think it is the redeemed who have brought back the most. Most of the newer (fictional) stories of redemption that I know of involve a redeemer who was also once redeemed. In the stories, the addict or the fallen are deaf to the exhortations of their loved ones and the people who seem pure and true. “You don’t know, you don’t understand!” They cry, like a teenager confronted by their parents.
“Oh, but I do,” the redeemer whispers, “for I, too, was once an alcoholic/cokehead/abuser/killer, and I found my way back to the light. You can, too—I will show you the way.”
Where once knowledge was found in divinity or madness or nature, today it is found in vice itself; in the vice experienced by those who have managed to summon the strength to tear themselves away after prolonged exposure.
And you do bring something with you, when you come back from the dreaming. But it carries a price. And it is not nearly so valuable as the knowledge, the virtue, of those who have simply lived a good life, being good people, and found the strength not to find themselves among the ranks of the fallen, no matter what the bitch Fortuna threw in their way. If you invest your time in honing the skill of living well, you will have made progress on the road to wisdom, while the sleepers were busy struggling in the quicksand.