Monday, July 13, 2009



I’ve been re-reading the sixth Harry Potter book in preparation for the new movie. I’m not much of a fantasy-fiction reader, but I had read most of the books aloud to my daughter and fell in love with them (talk about addictive!). Reading The Half-Blood Prince I had an experience I recall from reading the books before: at some point I would start to long for a wand. It’s just such an appealing concept, being able to point at something and make it do things. In fact, when I get completely absorbed in the books, I’ll have moments of feeling as if I do have a wand.

Of course, this is what drugs and alcohol—and all our addictions—are, wands that magically make us feel the way we want to feel. It’s so simple, just pour a drink or light a joint, snort a line or drop a pill, and poof, everything changes. Most of us start acting out or developing our addiction as teenagers, and this is the time in life when fantasies are so strong—which might be why fantasy fiction, like Harry Potter is directed at and so popular with teens. In that awkward time between the magic of childhood and the reality of adulthood, a time when we think that adults are wet blankets, always trying to quell our dreams, getting high is the perfect wand. Our childish joys no longer inspire us, and adult satisfactions, like work and raising a family, seem so tedious and boring. Drugs and alcohol are the perfect answer—adult in their power, but magical in their effects. There’s no effort involved, other than acquiring them, and they’re exciting, illicit, and reliable.

Of course, the problem is the ultimate, unforeseen effects. I was telling my eleven-year-old daughter about booze and pot the other day, why it is that people take them. “They feel really good,” I told her. “They can make you feel wild and free and happy.” Then I told her that, unfortunately, those short-term effects don’t last, and that the longer term effects can be crippling. This is why they aren’t magic. The high is an illusion. You have to pay a price for it. Short-term pleasure, when pursued on an ongoing basis, leads to addiction and a life centered on getting the next high and avoiding anything that will interfere with your high or cause any discomfort.

One of the biggest challenges for a recovering alcoholic or addict is coming to understand that things take time, that getting anything or accomplishing anything in life is a process that usually takes longer than we want it to. Addicts want magic—we want wands. We want not only the immediate pleasure, but also the thrill of the big breakthrough. In my twenties I had a long-running joke with one of my girlfriends who was a singer: when the phone would ring, I’d say, “It’s the Big Break!” That’s what I wanted and half-expected, to just get a phone call one day offering me a record deal, lots of money, and fame.

Having attained some success in my writing and teaching, I’ve learned that it’s nothing like that. It took me a dozen years of writing to develop the chops to write a book. It took me almost as long to develop the ideas for that book—not to mention all the years of practice and program experience I needed to get those ideas. Then it took me a year to put together the book proposal, find an agent, and get a book deal. When the agent told me she’d sold the book it wasn’t some amazing piece of news. Yes, it was great news, and I celebrated, but it was just part of the process. And that “success” only meant that I now needed to write the whole book. Another year of writing, then six months while the publisher prepared the book for publication. When the book came out, it wasn’t “The Big Break!” It was another day in my life. A good day. And the truth is, even if the book had never gotten sold, just writing it would have been hugely gratifying.

Much of the happiness that adults experience is from work, not from magic or wands. We learn that life’s deepest pleasure come from our efforts to help others, to improve ourselves, to learn to be more loving and wise. The Buddha talked about progressive levels of pleasure: the lowest pleasure is sensual; then meditative; and finally, the pleasure of insight. Each of these is also progressively more subtle and more difficult to attain. But it is that effort that makes them worthwhile. If there really were wands, I think that a lot of the meaning would go out of life.