Pretending To Be Human

When things get tense, when I start taking my work a bit too seriously, I remind myself that I’m only pretending to be a human being.  -Alan Arkin[1]

My first job in the substance abuse field was as an off-hours counselor in a twenty-eight-day alcohol rehab.  I supervised residents through the weekend hours when there was little to do: lead a community status check, take them for a walk, manage visitation, make a cigarette run to the local supermarket.  If I encountered a problem or needed some guidance, I consulted one of the primary counselors named Andre. 

I had a great deal of respect for Andre.  An alcoholic in recovery, with eleven years of sobriety, he continued to attend AA meetings, avoided bars, and tried to “keep things real” with both his clients and himself.  However, sometime after leaving the rehab for a job at an outpatient clinic, I learned that Andre relapsed and no longer worked as a counselor.

I hope that he’s doing well today; I have no idea how it happened.  But his reversion does raise interesting questions, which I think Andre would appreciate.  Who was the person I knew?  Was Andre a sober, level-headed man who dispensed good advice and often displayed a wisdom I lacked, or an alcoholic for whom recovery was well-intentioned role-playing?  Is recovery, for addicts, a way to not to be who they are, and so a type of pretending?  When the pretense slips, so does sobriety.

I mean this as an observation, not a criticism.  As with so much else, addicts provide an example of something that is true for us all.  Because we all pretend.  Pretending goes to the core of what makes us human.

Addiction is regarded by medical science as a chronic and incurable neurological disease rooted in our genetic code, hence its incurability.  Genetically encoded predispositions lead people to addictive behaviors, as the behaviors reward those innate dispositions.  Addictions are responses to what people desire, and what they desire is grounded in their neural programming.

When it comes to what makes you into “you,” nothing is more foundational than your DNA.  None of us would be here without it.  But how does a person overcome their genetics?  Short of altering someone’s molecular structure, recovering from an addiction requires people to deny the biology of their natures.  Addicts must defy what they are and act as if cured of an incurable disease. 

To accomplish this, recovering addicts develop a sober persona, defined in opposition to their inherited predilections, that is nothing more than a state of mind, a way of presenting themselves.  Inhabiting this kind of role is chosen, not innate, and, for that reason, requires support.  Acting requires an audience.  As commonly advised in AA meetings, “you fake it till you make it.”

There is nothing surprising about this.  Addicts are humans, after all.  We all “fake it till we make it” in a variety of ways, creating a self that attempts to ignore or resist what underlies our awareness.  Death is an example.  We all know we will die, and that death can come at any time.  There is no reason I might not die in a car accident the next time I drive into town.  But it is hard to live with that kind of knowledge; if we were fully aware of it, we might not get in the vehicle.  So, we create a character, who, most of the time, lives blissfully unaware.  We’ll even speed, tailgate, and drive recklessly having convinced ourselves it won’t happen to us.  We pretend.

The same is true for all of the anxieties and fears which percolate in our minds, whether they be about our health, finances, family, jobs, society, or planet.  It’s how we handle the asocial parts of ourselves, the selfishness, the belligerence, the snark.  We indulge them occasionally and then put them away, acting as if they don’t exist while we do other things.  We fashion our roles as sociable people, with varying degrees of success.

The Latin root of pretend means “to stretch forth or make a claim,” which is exactly what humans do.  We achieve a degree of freedom from our genetics and neurons, constructing the person who interacts with the world around us.  The same capacity shown by living as if we won’t die is used by addicts to overcome their cravings, and by people who elevate love over greed and animosity.  Our selves are a product of our imaginations; we don’t have to be what we are.  Being human is a way of acting in a world full of actors, which is what amused Mr. Arkin.

We are surrounded by the difficulty of this task.  Addicts are far from the only people who fail to successfully manage their inner desires.  Mass murderers and sociopaths are the most noticed examples; they are literally inhumane.  But everyone must contend with the impulses and messages that reach the surface.  Hopefully, in the process, we make ourselves into better people.

Becoming a human is the central task in being one.  We make ourselves into something more than we were born, something greater than our genetic inheritance.  The self whom we know, and through whom we relate to others, is a creation in the fullest sense of the word.  The ability is a gift from the Creator, allowing us to experience a measure of transcendence, including connection with the source of the gift.

I admired the character presented by Andre; I hope he got back to it.

[1] “Alan Arkin, Comic Actor With a Serious Side,” Robert Berkvist and Peter Keepnews, New York Times, July 5, 2023.

Picture of dancer by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay
Picture of opposing faces by Elisa from Pixabay
Picture of DNA by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Picture of worried woman by Robin Higgins from Pixabay
Picture of sunrise by Anja from Pixabay

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