Sober Eyes

This is similar to a topic I covered back in late 2020 about perceptions of reality but related to a different subject. That is alcohol which I freely admit I have had struggles with. In fact, I pledged to abstain from alcohol all this year but failed pretty early on and then again before one more slip around the middle of June. Since then I haven’t had a drop and in my defence, the vast majority of the year has been alcohol free and I’m confident it wouldn’t have been had I not tried at all. This experience has taught me I probably need to generally abstain altogether for the long-term. On a similar note, I have also failed in limiting the amount of books I buy but have basically given up keeping to this. 

This post is generally related to alcohol consumption but not my own struggles though I do think it helps to admit them. As I am quick to tell people, my decisions about limiting my alcohol consumption shouldn’t be taken as a judgement on others as most people I know keep this consumption within healthy limits. I am simply one of those people who needs to be a lot more vigilant as my drinking is similar in habit to an on/off switch. I either am always on or completely off. Were I prone to violence under the influence, I would consider it absolutely necessary to abstain completely. 

For people like me who grew up and participated in a culture that encouraged binge drinking, one of the most helpful things you can do is take a trip down Hindley Street, Adelaide (or its equivalent elsewhere) late on a Friday or Saturday night.  When you’re not one of the drunks, it is quite a sight to see. You hear cackling women in immodest clothing, you smell and often see vomit, trash, broken bottles and junk food wrappers. You see people stumbling or confused. It is really unpleasant when you’re seeing it through sober eyes. If you’re one of the drunks, you tend not to notice and I rarely did as I walked or stumbled down this same street while similarly inebriated. 

The first time I remember seeing this was when picking up my brother from a party well over a decade ago. I can’t remember why I wasn’t out but I was available to pick him up and did. I came down in my car and so was shielded somewhat from the smells but what I saw still bothered me. This was at a time well before I’d converted to Catholicism and when I could most charitably described as a lapsed Anglican. At the time though, I didn’t see anything wrong with binge drinking but what I saw still disgusted me. 

In pubs you can observe behaviour from different people. Some will nurse a few drinks over a trip and leave it at that. They might go every day but never drink to excess. Others won’t be able to stop themselves once in that environment. The same can be observed at family gatherings and other events. I am certainly in the latter category too. 

Australia in particular has a big problem with the culture of binge drinking. While it is far from the only country with a drinking culture, the pubic displays of drunkenness are still noticeably worse than what you see in most other countries. Japan for example has a big drinking culture but you generally don’t see the same anti-social behaviour pouring onto the streets. I understand this is similar in most European countries too — where they certainly drink. What makes this worse is that even when not encouraged, it is something we laugh about or at least not take too seriously.

Even among Catholics this can be a problem. Think for example of the great G.K. Chesterton who was known (along with Hilaire Belloc) to be a big drinker. People can make the mistake of seeing this as evidence that being a big drinker is okay within certain limits. A recent book review by Gary Furnell in the June 2022 issue of Quadrant Magazine of The Sins of G.K. Chesterton briefly mentioned the reality of his heavy drinking. The reviewer refers to another biography of Chesterton’s wife titled Frances: The Woman Who Was Chesterton which,

revealed that along with their love for each other and prodigies of widely-appreciated creative work there were other realities: their distressing bouts of serious ill-health, their continuing money worries; his over-eating and drinking; his and her battles with depressive episodes, and for years their grief of childlessness with all their stressful medical procedures attendant to that problem.

This wasn’t one of his virtues but a serious vice that he struggled to overcome for much of his life. We should love the man and all the great things he did but stop short of using his weaknesses to justify our own. 

I can say that what I do these days when drinking is mostly harmless. I usually listen to music or watch some stand-up comic or maybe a movie while drinking. That is while alone but of course, drinking in social situations is preferable.  Here I am being disingenuous because this is still playing a dangerous game. What tends to happen is I continue to drink on that occasion or those occasions become more frequent. So why I might not be doing anything intrinsically sinful, this habit can lead to sinful behaviour. And this is how things play out because while on occasion, this would indeed be harmless, it quickly becomes more than occasional.  

Due to my past years of drinking, I can now drink enormous amounts without feeling drunk. I am not bragging in sharing this because I will drink more thinking I am safe to do so when the amount of alcohol in my system is still unhealthy though I don’t feel the effects. Once I feel the effects, how drunk am I? Drinking with the intention to get drunk is always sinful and so too is drinking until I feel something. I have heard all sorts of interpretations of what qualifies as “drunk” but thinking like this is still dangerous. 

So what is the conclusion to all this? I only know that I have to be very careful with my drinking and I still wonder whether or not I should give it away altogether. I’ve had some success this year in situations where I normally would have drunk quite heavily where I instead remained sober. It didn’t hurt so perhaps I should continue not to? Even then, I tell myself I am a jolly fellow when I drink and I don’t do anything bad, so why make such a firm decision? So I don’t really have a conclusion at the moment, I only know I don’t want to have to tell a priest I drank to excess in confession again.

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