If there is any flaw in the human mind and spirit that is more destructive than the tendency toward addiction, I cannot imagine what it could be. Unfortunately, in the public discourse about it, addiction often gets restricted to alcohol, drugs, and sometimes sex. That makes it possible for those of us who don’t suffer from those particular addictions to ignore all rest of the evidence that we live in a highly addictive culture and that probably all of us, if we are honest, suffer from addictive leanings. Before you run away, having convinced yourself that this post cannot possibly have any relevance to your life, let me offer some ways to think about addiction in a broad way.
The essence of any addiction is the attempt at least to manage, if not obliterate, any uncomfortable feelings about ourselves or the world. And of course, the worse we feel about ourselves and the more we are confronted with the painful realities of our world, the more we want to run away from those feelings. Can you relate to that?
Denial is the “coin of the realm” in any addictive system. Some people in 12-step programs will say that “Addiction is the disease that tells you you’re not sick.” And it(the disease) goes on to tell you that “if you’re doing any damage, it is only to yourself; others should not be affected.” Unfortunately, such denial is always based in a fundamental lie. It doesn’t tell the truth.
To give one example: The industrial revolution has created much good in our culture, but it has always used denial to avoid dealing with the long-term consequences of the waste it creates. The more money there is to be made and the more new “toys” that are available to buy, the less motivated people are to look at the effects of waste on our planet. Now we are paying the long-term costs in rampant toxin-created illnesses, destruction of cultures, and increasing poverty.
As long as the primary focus stays on the excitement of the bottom line and on the shiny new toys we can buy, denial of any dangerous future consequences rules human life. The “lie” distracts us from seeing the truth, but if we look anyway, it tells us that there is “no problem” or, if really pressed, tells us that there is “no proof” of any problem, so don’t worry about it.
In an addictive system, all internal empty space must be filled with some external solution or source of comfort. Governments, businesses, and, I am sad to say, most organized religions remain successful by keeping people focused on their emptiness, their neediness, and on their “sinfulness.” It turns out to be an act of sedition to empower people to feel genuinely good about themselves, because healthy people do not need externally protective governments, shiny new toys, or institutional sources of “salvation.” In our culture, people learn that the absence of immediate entertainment equals boredom, that quietness equals laziness, and that we have a right not to feel “shamed” by having to look at the consequences of our addictive behaviors. People are taught that all these feelings are bad and that we shouldn’t have to feel them. By utilizing external “medications,” we shut off our ability to perceive real dangers, we make real creativity – the kind that can only come out of profound emptiness – impossible, and we lose our ability to be resilient and loving in community and relationship.
And, by the way, there is always someone ready to sell us some short-term “remedy” that serves to maintain our denial of reality.
Addiction is all about promising short-cuts to comfort. If we look at present business (the quarterly bottom line), politics (what have you done for me lately?), the economy (We can’t do anything to restrict business, even if it kills us all eventually), and even community (I’ve got mine, too bad you don’t have yours), we can see plenty of evidence of the sickness of denial.
Any careful study of addiction can easily demonstrate that it makes lots of promises that it either cannot deliver, or at best that the “cost” will be much higher than expected.
All of the above have a destructive effect on the very community that could promote long-term health and well-being. Fortunately, for those who identify the addictive patterns in themselves, they can then embark on a program of “recovery.”
In my next post, I will write about what a broadly understood recovery program might look like.
“The Promised Land is within and among us.”