by Adam Sobsey
Well, maybe this series already has gotten boring. But what I mean is that, having discovered that not drinking for an extended period really isn't that big of a deal, I have now reached the stage where I'm merely twiddling my thumbs, waiting for the experiment to lope to its appointed end; which is to say, in turn, that it is perhaps a bigger deal than I am able to recognize, since, if it wasn't, I wouldn't have much awareness at all of anticipating my next opportunity to drink. It'd be, "Oh, I haven't had a drink in a month? Really?" I do want to drink, of course, and I continue to supplant actual drinking with the purchase and reading of wine. The restaurant just got hit up with a pair of close-out lists from two of our biggest distributors, and let's just say that I helped us make quite a dent. Really, at these prices, you'd be stupid not to buy.
But I can successfully not drink, and with minimal complaint. The question that remains has to do with how long it would be likely to take for me to truly get beyond drinking. Some of it is probably about change at the molecular level, but much more of it requires sheer mental conditioning. I have friends who don't drink at all and would no more consider doing so than they would think of guzzling yak's milk (that's something that other people do, in some other world). Over time, they've not only lost the habit of drinking but have developed an aversion to it, or at least they've built the impervious habit of not drinking. I suspect it would take something like a year to really get beyond the desire altogether, and probably would require generating an entirely different context of living: another job, another place, another culture. (I am surrounded by and serve alcohol four or five nights a week, and I help buy it for my business.) But then, every culture has its forms of ritual intoxication, and in Bhutan or Botswana or Brainerd I would find other means of anesthetic and pleasure.
If that's the case, then is it also true that the logical extension of abstention is something like a life of asceticism or monkishness, devoted to pure worship or contemplation? That has appeal, to be sure, and I've even had passing flirtations with such a life; but how many of us really, permanently embrace it---especially in the acquisitive and highly social West?
I had a peer acquaintance in college who, as a freshman, was a superb actor, an advanced thinker (he was already studying biomedical ethics at age 18) and a really nice guy who was fun to hang out with. After college he gave up everything and joined a monastery, where he changed his name and his life. All of his intelligence, warmth, vitality, generosity---all of his gifts---were pledged to the narrow world inside the walls. (I have to note here the irony that monks have historically made some of our finest alcoholic drinks.) I kind of miss him. And I suppose that, while I'm not drinking at all, I kind of miss myself, too, in a way.
What can you give up and still be you? What enjoyments, habits, relationships and objects are attached to you so deeply that you are unrecognizable---to yourself or others---without them? Strip away the padding and are you just a quivering mess, scrabbling for anchorage on something, someone? Unchained, do you become vulnerable in unimaginable ways? What would absolutely kill you not to have? Or, to turn it around, think of how much you possess, how much you do, how much you believe, that you could actually do away with.
Here is one of the most famous passages in English literature:
... [W]e do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
That's from George Eliot's Middlemarch, and it's been on my mind lately. I've always found it compelling yet slightly impenetrable, like some of Eliot's other marquee lines---I even named one of my plays after one of them. But the one above seems to make much more sense to me these days.