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Musings on Drugs and Addiction vis-a-vis Spiritual Indigence: Causes and Effects
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2009-06-26 09:02:23
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When the radical education critic Ivan Illich says in Deschooling of Society (1971) that the leading institutions of our Western society (educational and therapeutic as well as economic and military) are "either socially or psychologically 'addictive,'" he means that they feed on an insecurity which they themselves create. By keeping people away from real experience, school makes them dependent on an artificial, formal certification of their knowledge and talents. Schools were originally intended to teach people the things they would need to do in life, but this original aim (or rationale) has long since been lost in the curricular rigidity and petty power hierarchies of the school system. Children only know that they are supposed to learn because school, parents, and others say they should, and thus they don't learn. Too many parents don't care whether their child ever reads a book outside of school, comes up with an original idea, or learns to think things through for himself. Grades, and later degrees, are the only signs of performance they can recognize.

One result of this hollow concept of education was the PhD syndrome of the 1960s, which peaked at the height of the Vietnam war economy. Those who lived through that period will recall that within the typical middle-class community it was de rigeur for an able-minded student to attain an academic or equivalent professional degree. To cease one's formal education after graduating from college was to incur the disapproval, even the contempt, of one's closest associates. So external was the definition of education then current that the deviant risked being admonished, "Don't you want to learn any more?" as if learning were only possible within the walls of some academic institution. As Illich says, "Once we have learned to need school, all our activities tend to take the shape of client relationships to other specialized institutions. Once the self-taught man or woman has been discredited, all non-professional activity is rendered suspect."

What was most interesting about this phenomenon was that the hysteria often generated within families and groups of friends over this issue did not always concern the practical economic consequences of earning or not earning a degree. Rather, there seemed to be a basic emotional uneasiness—an "ontological insecurity," if you will—about how one could define oneself subjectively without having an advanced degree. And when you talk about one's need for something external to create an identity for oneself, you are talking about addiction, even if there is no syringe in sight.

As Illich says, schooling is a basic social experience which helps determine the character of our later interactions with our social and institutional environment. Even more basic are our family and social relationships. And the first thing that should strike our notice here is the excessive stress our society places on social contacts. With spectator sports and shallow, uninvolving aesthetic experiences occupying the leisure time of the bulk of the population, most people don't develop interests that are sufficiently intense and self-motivated to be seen as being worth pursuing alone. Without denying that going to the movies with friends adds to the pleasure and value of the experience, we may well question the priorities of a society where it is considered unthinkable (except by a small minority) to go to the movies alone. It would seem that most of the people who go to the movies don't do so out of a very strong intrinsic interest in the substance of the films they are seeing.

Individually, it would seem, we don't enjoy or feel secure in our own company. That was pointed out by Pascal centuries ago at the beginning of modernity: we are unable to sit still in a chair and examine and contemplate our lives for more than a few minutes. The need to have other people around all the time is part of what some psychologists have called "social dependency"—a need to cling to human "objects." For many middle-class people, this form of dependency takes the place of the drug and alcohol habits that show up regularly in some lower-class cultures where family and friends are not such dependable sources of emotional gratification. If this social dependency expresses itself in well-established contacts with numerous friends, relatives, and acquaintances, it might be the basis of a rich and stable inner life. Instead we are predominantly grouped into nuclear families—husband, wife, and children, with no other deep or permanent connections—and consequently our heavy need for people is channeled into these few relationships. What often results, as in drug addiction, is outright dependency on a single object.

The way we are taught to view the opposite sex is, in effect, preparation for such dependency. Those of us who grow up in conventional modern Western households are trained from an early age to seek out one special person as a partner through life. This contributes to the stampede to early marriages, half of which will end in divorce. It also tends to cheapen all our other friendships, stunting them at the level of trivial acquaintanceships which will be discarded once the social object of our dreams appears. Beyond all else, this indoctrination strains incalculably our relations with the opposite sex. It dehumanizes half the people we meet and stands in the way of the natural mingling and person-to-person relating in which real experience is rooted. A male addicted to sexual conquests, the Don Juan type, will tend to talk about women as though they were different from people." One then begins to wonder if the concept of the extended family, still alive a century ago, was a better idea than that of the “nuclear family.”

When boy looks at girl, or girl looks at boy, he or she sees not a unique human individual, but someone to fill a role, a potential husband or wife. It is the same as thinking about school and envisioning not the experience of learning, but the comfort of social belonging that comes with being a member of an institution. One very positive thrust of the contemporary youth culture is its attempt to reduce the opposite sex to life size by encouraging easy-going, informal contact among young people of both sexes. But even where marriage is not the one overriding goal and couplings take on a freer, more modern appearance, we still can see the same kind of empty relationship that results from the desperate search for a partner: a relationship where it is the lover's mere presence and constant devotion that counts, and not the opportunities for mutual learning and growth, emotional and otherwise, that the lover can offer.

Anything that we do can be addictive or not addictive; the key is in how and why we do it. Just as learning for the sake of grades and degrees keeps us from learning by doing, artificially programmed relationships where mates (or lovers) are sought as tokens of security keep us from knowing ourselves and others. In both cases the experience is external, and leaves us drifting in a state of detachment where we are always looking for the next degree, the next lover, the next "fix." We are taught that we need school, need marriage, need a steady job, need a shrink, need drugs. What we are not taught is that we can be whole in ourselves, confident in our ability to cope with, learn from, and enjoy the people and things that make up our environment. Addiction is not an aberration from our way of life. Addiction becomes our way of life depriving us of our freedom which is inherent in being human.

At the same time as we have difficulty achieving a secure sense of ourselves, the very chaos of today's society and the breakdown of ordered family life often don't allow us the externally structured security our training inclines us to seek. In this fluid setting a number of compensatory addictions have begun to flourish. One is overeating and the consequent problems of obesity. Few have seen the nexus between overeating and obesity and rampant malnutrition in half of the population on earth. The problem of hunger is not one of logistic or know-how as some misguidedly suppose; we have that; what we lack is the will to resolve the problem now; that lack of will spells dehumanization which makes one callous to the suffering and deprivation of others.

Another compensatory addiction is psychotherapy. An unhealthy feature of many psychiatrist-client relationships is that the attention of both parties is directed inward, toward this artificially conceived relationship itself, rather than outward, toward helping the patient interact better with the rest of the world and thus outgrow the need for therapy. In this way, a continuing dependency is established. As Illich also points out, to a certain extent this cliental relationship obtains also with MD doctors.

The striking thing about all these addictions is that they are so readily interchangeable. An addiction is not sought as a vividly involving experience in itself (except sometimes in the early stages, as with the initial euphoria of heroin for the novice user), but as something in which to lose oneself—a protection against experience. It doesn't matter much what that something is; at any given time one addiction may be more convenient or palatable than another. Adults of all ages find themselves cursing their cigarette habit when they are not overeating, and gaining weight rapidly when they are not smoking.

Young people fall in and out of heavy involvements with drugs, psychiatrists, religious cults and movements, and all-consuming love affairs in rapid succession. The Children of God maintain a strict prohibition against drugs, since many converts to the faith are former users.  Like a full-scale heroin habit, a total commitment to a religious sect negates everything a person has been and done and suffered and learned before "seeing the light." Order is imposed by the strictures of the group, assurance and integration are sought through faith in an all-powerful God, and the threatening responsibility of self-assertion is evaded. Many youths undoubtedly join such groups in order to leave behind a life of confusion, failure, and self-doubt. Their communal experience amounts to a total restructuring of their cognitions along narrow, rigid lines. They join in effect a pseudo-religious order which takes away any vestige of freedom and autonomy.

A newly withdrawn addict finds himself at least temporarily facing an emotional and spiritual void. Nothing is really salient to him, because the web of interconnections with others and the range of satisfactions in life which people normally can fall back on have been eradicated or suppressed by the addiction, and they can't be restored in an instant. Even when this normal psychic context is restored, it is hard to find a place in it for something which was formerly the addict's whole world. This is why reformed alcoholics and drug addicts are often the most hard line opponents of chemical intoxication. It is also why some ex-lovers, to the amazement of those around them, display in the aftermath of a breakup a vindictive bitterness toward that person whom they felt they loved more than anyone in the world.

The relationship between addiction and the loss of personal bearing in an institutionalized society extends throughout the modern Western world. There, more than in other places in the world the physiological myth of drug dependence—the idea that the individual's independent will is powerless before the inexorable action of a drug—is fervently propagated and maintained. It is worth pondering that the two decades which saw the largest increase in opium importation into the U.S. (1890-1910) began with the closing of the frontier, symbolic of the death of classic American individualism. At around the same time, America was also in the throes of a series of state and nation-wide prohibitions of alcohol, culminating in the ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919, and was taking up the cigarette habit in a large-scale way.

Obviously, a malady so deeply embedded in the West’s cultural life cannot be cured by rehabilitating "drug abusers" any more than by locking them up. To be aware of the full extent of addiction in the Western world generally is to recognize that it cannot be eliminated except by a global change in the quality of our lives, our so called “life-style,” which in turn requires major political and economic readjustments and a serious reflection on our spiritual foundations. That may be the silver-lining or our current economic crisis.

In fact, the proper examination of this problem leads to a crucial question: could it be that drug addiction is a symptom and a compensation for spiritual emptiness? A way to anesthetize the spiritual vacuity and pain? Short of exploring and answering this question, no awareness of the dimensions of addiction can help us deal with it constructively either for ourselves or for others whom we are trying to help. For example, while one addiction may be less destructive or more socially acceptable than another, it is ultimately not the answer to treat one addiction by substituting it with another (e.g. methadone for heroin, or dependence on Alcoholics Anonymous for dependence on alcohol). As Kierkegaard pointed out in the 19th century in describing the anxiety of Man, that anxiety, which often leads to addictions and spiritual anesthesia, is ultimately about freedom which remains Man’s burden, his existential dread, whether he likes it or not, and from which he cannot escape.

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Brandon Birgani2013-04-02 10:12:25
Dr. Paparella, I agree with you wholly about the perversion of education. I for one, am someone who loves knowledge.I find that although I did learn some from my formal education, it was the books I read of my own volition, and the role models. Where I disagree is in spiritual emptiness. I believe it is not spirituality that people are lacking these days, but courage, and passion. People give in to what society proclaims is "supposed" to be their passion, when in reality they never truly discover what they love, because they are too busy doing what others have been told by others, who were told by others they should love. It's the individual that has to break free and follow their dreams. Spirituality can be that passion one person was looking for, but the individual has to find his own true passion. Life is not a straight line, but a parade marching across a city. It can make so many different turns, and twists. It's up to us to lead the march. As long as we do not harm the innocent, and have lived a life that is truly our own, and no others, I believe we've succeeded in living the "good life".

Brandon Birgani2013-04-02 10:14:08
I also happen to be in your class. See you today at 12:30! :3

J. Anjos (student)2013-04-03 00:32:47
Interesting. I came across this and couldn't hesitate not reading it. Its funny you know, how spirituality-religion can be tied to drugs. I never thought about it in such a way. I do have my agreements, with that. That is probably why back then, tobacco was used as getaway drug in religious rituals- interesting.

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