|A patent for some sort of|
This has been a difficult post to write. For a couple of reasons. One, it's sort of an awkward topic. And two, I've had difficulty trying to determine what it is that helped me. But I want to get this out because it ties in with the next post, which I want to get finished by Ash Wednesday. As the title indicates, the purpose of this post is to help people stop the masturbation and pornography habit. The number of people (especially men (though I hear the number of women is incredibly high too)) who look at pornography and/or masturbate daily (give or take) is not negligible. (50 points to the first person who can tell me where I got the "not negligible" language.) If it had to make a wager, I would say it represents the vast majority of the post-pubescent population in the country. At any rate, there may be some "too much information" details here, but I'll only include them if I think they're necessary.
I've received messages from a number of people asking for help with this issue. For many, the inability to control sexual appetite represents the single biggest moral failing in their lives. Even great men struggle with this problem. Unfortunately, there's no secret to the process of stopping. It's difficult, and it's frustrating, but it is doable. And it's doable without any ridiculous side effects or problems, despite what people love to claim to the contrary. What I've decided to do is tell my story with respect to the issue, identifying what helped and what hurt throughout the process. It's not a particularly interesting story necessarily, but I think it's the best way to approach this.
Before getting into the story, though, the first thing I think people need, and this is why I started the blog the way I did, are reasons for acting. They need at least a basic philosophical basis for doing or not doing something. I don't think they need graduate degrees in philosophy (and honestly, such things, in many cases, may actually inhibit their growth), but they need a basic moral background. When a person acts voluntarily, he acts on a reason. "I shouldn't do X because of Y." He needs a well-developed Y if he has any hope of being good. If not, his appetites tend to overtake him.
In many ways, this has made me critical of certain religious teachings. As I've said, I do not think "faith in Jesus" by itself is sufficient for tackling something as challenging as sexuality. Now, I am in no way being critical of faith as a thing; faith is a virtue. Religion, I think, by its nature, is the best avenue for exploring and developing philosophical wisdom, but it tends, at least in the modern world, to actually inhibit such development. It is too commonly used as an excuse to avoid analysis. "Why don't you masturbate?" "Oh, because I'm Catholic." It's an answer, it's a reason, but it isn't enough. That God does not want us to do something, in some ways, is a compelling reason for not doing something. In other ways, it isn't. It has the benefit of putting some strong force behind the reason, but it has the problem of making the reason feel arbitrary. "Why does God care about this?" every good college kid eventually asks. And worse, "Why should I care what God wants?" the real cutting-edge ones ultimately get behind. It's only a short step from there to serious immorality.
This is a lifelong process, of course. I don't think, for average people anyway, there is a clear point where they can say "Alright, I've got enough philosophy to make moral decisions." But they need to be taught, to know things somehow beyond their gut, if they want to get anywhere. Their gut is of course very helpful, and I think most people are initially repulsed by pornography and masturbation, but I've never seen this to be enough in most people. This is because, as I will go into below, virtue is trained. The actual overcoming of immorality is incredibly difficult and takes a great deal of fortitude, especially when the vice is so ingrained in a person. But people need a reason for their struggles; they have to know why something is immoral if they really hope to be moral. I hope that I've given at least some part of that background.
Assuming a person can get this basic background, it's important to know the actual process of stopping something like masturbation. So to explain that, let me start where I began. (I believe I mentioned this story somewhat in my introductory post, but I want to flesh it out here because I think it's relevant.) Like any red-blooded American, I was addicted to pornography by the time I was in high school. (It's honestly probably earlier now. The internet wasn't as easily accessible (nor was it as fast) as when I was very young. Kids today can look at porn with their iPhones in waterproof cases while taking showers! I would have killed for that as a youngster.) It was a pretty daily thing, and I was pretty efficient at it. And it really wasn't a major concern for me. I mean, considering what I was looking at (dudes and all), I would have absolutely died had my parents found out, but it was something I had relative control over. That is, like most boys, I had to have it, but I wasn't crazy or reckless about it or anything. And what's really funny is that at this time I thought that I would still find a wife and get married. The gay porn stuff was just whatever, something I did when no one was looking, not me. I think people who have consistent porn habits always feel like they have two lives, convinced that the bad life doesn't really affect them---a phenomenon common to most addictions, I think.
College made it worse. The internet was faster, I had way more free time, and I wanted it more. I can remember my freshman year of college. After realizing I could look at porn whenever I wanted, for as long as I wanted (college was really easy...), I came up with the saying "True freedom is a prison." I used to say it all the time to myself. It sounds really overly dramatic now, but I meant it. Which leads me to my next point. I never really was okay with the porn. I always felt guilty about it. Now, I'm probably a person who is prone to feeling guiltier than I should (which has honestly changed quite a bit in my adulthood), but I know I wasn't the only one. I'd talk to people about it, at least in passing, and it affected everyone the same way. And I wasn't raised on strict sexual principles either. I didn't really have anyone ever telling me that it was wrong. I mean, it was private and it was embarrassing, but the idea that it was bad wasn't hammered into me as a child. I don't mean to imply that I didn't have a good upbringing, but I hardly had any guidance with respect to sexual ethics and masturbation as a child. This is probably going to become even more of a problem as time goes on, where fathers, who have their own porn addictions, will have to deal with the problems related to their sons' porn addictions.
But by the time I was in graduate school, it was at its worst. I can remember looking at porn, masturbating, and then quickly going over to my homework where I had to translate something from the Greek New Testament. What a world, right? (I can actually remember one day in particular; I think I'd finished masturbating before coming across my favorite Greek phrase for the first time: ὁ Θεός ὁ ὕψιστος ("The most high God") (always appearing in the genitive, I think: Ἰησοῦ υἱὲ τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου / δοῦλοι τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ὑψίστου εἰσίν, etc. The title "most high" has always been really linguistically and theologically interesting to me. And it sounds awesome: ho theos ho hupsistos (remember, the o's are omicrons; they sound more like a's! (I'm sure some people might disagree with this!))) But it wasn't until after graduate school that it started to change. Before starting law school, I moved away to live near some friends. I had my own, sad single room apartment. I decorated it with things I found from Goodwill, and I had nothing to do.
This was a very difficult time for me. I think that I'd always thought that I could just hang out with my friends for the rest of my life, ignoring my sexuality. No one knew about it, and no one needed to know about it. And that was fine. I had my friends, I had my porn, what else could I possibly need. But my friends weren't really interested in hanging out all the time. They had lives, and that felt like a betrayal to me. They hung out with me when they could, but the idea of lasting happiness through "hanging out" is a child's dream. I decided, through the many days I spent alone, that I wasn't going to get anywhere unless I dealt with my sexuality. I felt like that was the was the solution to my unrest. However I did it, it had to be dealt with. What I'd come to realize, I think, is that there is no such thing as not dealing with it. There are moral ways to deal with it, and there are immoral ways to deal with it. But it has to be dealt with. Ignoring it just makes it worse.
As I noted elsewhere, this lead me down a philosophical path. I wanted to know why, at least on some level, homosexuality and masturbation were wrong. But that's not what I want to talk about here. And in a certain way, it wasn't exactly what I was interested in back then. I mean, it was, but I was most interested in the idea of freedom. That is, freedom from the appetite. I wanted so much to just not have any sexual attraction. I wasn't even asking to be made straight or anything; I just wanted to be free. What I didn't realize at that time, I think, is that, one, sexuality is good (it is not a curse that binds us), and two, that there is nothing good about being freed in such a way. At the time, I couldn't see sexuality as anything but a vice in itself, something you had to trudge through. And this makes sense, of course. For the majority of my life it had been something that had to be kept secret, something that had to be indulged in at any stake, beyond any notion of dignity or self worth.
So what did I do? I fasted. I remember having a talk to with a Mormon professor some time before then. He said that the most important answers come through fasting. I thought this was ridiculous, especially considering the fact that we were talking about what school I should go to. But there was something about it that I liked. So I fasted. Probably dangerously so. But I did. What I think I realized through that process was that there was something special, something heroic about not choosing to do something you think you have to do. This is actually a bit difficult to convince people of. I think that people think, and as I thought in college, that true freedom was doing what you wanted to do. And as everyone who subscribes to such beliefs can attest, that is a prison. You're in that case, as St. Paul (and our Lord) put it, a δοῦλος, a slave. True freedom, I think I came to realize, is being able to not do something I want to do.
People don't understand the importance of this I don't think, nor do they realize how far the principle stretches. It affects everything in our lives. It is best to call it a virtue. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, it is the thing that elevates us above everything else, that which frees us, that which makes us good examples of human beings at every moment in our lives. The more we give in to a thing, the less of men we are. No matter our stations in life, this is always true. This is what fasting, I think, taught me. No matter how hungry or thirsty I was, the more I came to realize that I could go longer without it. And this was for something that I actually needed. How much easier would something like masturbation, which I didn't need, be!
But of course it wasn't easy. I thought, at the time, that stopping the porn would be a big step and that maybe it would be enough. I think a lot of people think that the porn is really the bad part about masturbation, and masturbation is just something that has to be there. Like you could virtuously masturbate or something. And I get where this comes from. Pornography can be completely depraved, and it makes our sex drives feel like bottomless pits. I think many people yearn for the days when they didn't need pornography to get them off. Masturbation, by comparison, seems innocent, something we did as kids. In some ways, this, just quitting porn but keeping with the masturbation, was a good idea, and in other ways, it was completely worthless. But I did. I stopped looking at what I classified as porn sites. Now, I would still find other stuff that wasn't exactly porn to use (like movies with sexual plots that I would otherwise have no interest in), but I avoided the sites I really wanted to go to.
This, by itself, felt freeing. The flowers smelled a little sweeter, if you will. But like any case where a person doesn't really quit something, he falls back into the worst parts of it. Eventually the sexually themed movies just ended up being porn, and the line between what I felt was acceptable and unacceptable blurred to the point of non-existence. I remember there was this one movie I watched on Netflix. It was this gay Romeo-and-Juliet-type movie, where there's this conservative Palestinian guy who falls in love with a liberal Jewish guy. (Again, following the classic experienced-teaching-the-inexperienced formula I mentioned in this post.) But there were some pretty explicit sex scenes in it. Nothing out of control, but I remember thinking to myself, afterward, "you were just watching that to jerk off; be honest with yourself."
So I decided I had to stop completely. When I fasted, I chose not to eat or drink during daylight hours (like a Muslim---the only people I've ever really known who fast regularly). But the thing about fasting is that it provides you clear goals in a simple way. If you can get to 4 p.m., you can get to 5 p.m. And if you can get to 5 p.m, you can get to 6 p.m. And by the time it's sundown, you feel like you could go any number of more hours. Once you've trained the appetite, you can control it. Obviously you cannot go forever, and I am not advocating fasting until you make yourself sick. I am merely trying to identify how the virtue works. So I applied it to masturbation. I didn't masturbate one day. And if I didn't masturbate one day, I could go a couple more days. And so on. And after a few months, it was only easier. And by this point, a couple-few years later, the act of masturbation seems very foreign to me. It's hard to even picture myself doing it now.
There are a few things I want to point out though. It's not easy. All you're going to want to do after a certain point is masturbate. Just don't. Some people advocate filling your time with something else (like a hobby), but I'm not a big advocate of this. Because, in some ways, it's not facing what it is head on. It is obviously good not to dwell on it, but you have to be able to say "I am actively choosing not to do this" to yourself. Over and over. Your not doing something is what develops the virtue in you. But don't take this the wrong way. You must avoid anything that makes you horny. This seems ridiculous and unreasonable, but I mean it. If Yahoo! news makes you horny, avoid it. If Facebook gets you going (and for the kids in my law school who look at girls' bikini pictures all through class, it clearly does), just don't go on it. If you see an attractive person in a news story (like a story about how to get great abs), do not click on it. Do not even give yourself an inch.
I know this seems absurd, but it's not. I am a firm believer that once a sexual image is in front of us, we lose some control of our mental faculties, at least a little bit. Now, we never lose control of them so completely that we can't just close the window (and I always recommend this; if you feel yourself getting into it, just close your eyes and close the window; it's not worth it, whatever it is you're looking at), but it takes that much more strength the deeper in we are. This isn't revolutionary advice, but it is absolutely vital. Facing your sexuality does not mean putting yourself in a situation where you have to say no to temptation. It's controlling yourself so that saying no isn't always an insurmountable struggle. Now, the more you do this, the more control you will have when faced with serious temptation and the less you'll have to avoid such images. You'll be able to live your life like a normal person, without the constant fear that you're going to fall back into it, but never tempt temptation.
The other thing I want to note is that you will have wet dreams. This seems like a haha-whocares-gross thing. But it's something that people don't talk about enough. While wet dreams can be a sign that you are freeing yourself from the habit, they are annoying, and you will come to want them to happen. This can be a struggle in itself. Not that you can really make them happen, but that you get frustrated when they don't. This, in my experience, has been the most annoying part about the whole thing. You can control masturbation; you can't control wet dreams. And you can't control waking up before finishing a wet dream, lying there, ready to...yeah. I have no great advice here. My only advice is to just try to let them happen without making them happen. This may sometimes feel futile, but remember, you are not responsible for the things that you do when you are asleep or half-asleep. Never feel guilty about them.
And what's also important to remember is that a sexual drive is an objectively good thing. It is a sign of health and flourishing. How we use that drive, like any appetite, determines what kind of people we are, but you must not, ever, resent the drive that you do have. It must merely be used in the appropriate context. When it is used there, it is one of the greatest things we can do. So be proud that you are healthy and able to have things like wet dreams. I remember, early in the process, I thought to myself, "I haven't done it in so long, I could have sex with anyone right now," getting encouraged that I'd somehow found the "cure" to homosexuality. I don't think this anymore (and I will write a lot more on the topic of mixed-orientation marriages), but I will say that if young men didn't masturbate and didn't see it as an option, we'd have a lot more happily married couples.
Anyway, this post has gotten quite long, and I should end it. There's a lot I want to say about the modern pornography generation, but that can wait for another post. All I want to emphasize is that it can be done; but also that it is very difficult. If it were easy, it would be valueless. If sexuality were like everything else, it wouldn't be special. It's that it is so powerful and such an enormous part of being a human being that controlling it makes a person that much more heroic.