I was speaking with a client a while back about problems he had with a scarcely used home out in the desert. A tree planted over one hundred feet from the home had sent roots that invaded the septic tank and grew up into the pipes until it came out the shower drain. I thought to myself, “That’s one determined and desperate tree!” It struck me that anything, when desperate for the basics needed to survive, with go to great lengths and disregard anything previously considered as unacceptable, to cling to life when no other options are available. As a psychologist and a human being, I had a great admiration for that tree as well as the person telling the story. When denied the possibility of healthy relationship and connection, he had gone far out of the way for sustenance and found it in infidelity and sexual addiction. His actions went against everything he believed in or wanted for himself, but he was dying on the inside and could not see any other option available. Through years of unhealthy relationship patterns, this man had found himself in the middle of a “relational desert” and probably would not be alive today without the “septic tank” of sexual addiction that both sustained and trapped him. This doesn’t endorse his behavior any more than he did, but what else could he do given they the inability to see any other source of life? Actually, is some sense I look at this desperate bid for life as hopeful since the person has not yet slid down into depression and given up trying.
It’s easy to judge the desperate choices of others, but what have you substituted for a healthy relationship; food, exercise, work, gambling, alcohol, volunteer work, drugs, television, pornography? The list of ways to “medicate” and sustain when in the middle of loneliness is endless. Even in the high achieving, the externally successful culture of Orange County the pressure and opportunity to substitute real living for performance and achievement is high and even praised by others.
The real work of change begins when we are able to acknowledge the areas of our life that have become a desert and acknowledge that we are sustaining ourselves with “septic tanks.” The process of removing and retraining these roots takes significant time, just as a tree’s roots don’t grow 100 feet overnight. It involves the uncomfortable process of allowing yourself to be surrounded by people who can pour deeply and continually into you relationally until you are able to put roots down deeply enough to build the network of connections that can sustain you in living, even when you live in a desert.