Widespread abuse of opiates is sweeping the nation. Sectors of the rural population once thought immune to the scourge of drugs now appear vulnerable. This crisis is taxing the resources of many communities as they struggle to cope.
However, like so many of these addiction problems, authorities are dealing with the effects of the epidemic, not the cause. As a result, government churns out more legislation, regulations and funding. They launch public education programs. Police work to cut off supplies of the addictive substances.
The Happiness Problem
All these measures, although helpful, cannot resolve the problem. They do not get to the core of what is wrong in society. To put it simply, officials need to find out the reasons why people are unhappy with life and willing to destroy themselves by taking these drugs.
Modern society treats happiness as a purely personal thing. Happiness involves spiritual matters that secularist modernity does not officially recognize as valid. Thus, people are very uncomfortable with tackling it profoundly. At best, happiness is reduced to something subjective to be found in the satisfaction of all of one’s material desires.
Thus, to avoid the complications of the “happiness problem,” those who deal with the opiate crisis tend to frame the issue in purely material terms of self-interest. And so the logic of the debate claims that a person is happy when surrounded by material abundance. Poverty makes people unhappy, encouraging destructive alternatives. Thus, the opiate addiction epidemic is treated as an economic problem, particularly prevalent in blighted areas of the country.
The diagnosis being economic, the solution too must be economic in the form of educational programs to convince people not to work against their self-interest by abusing opiates. It might also include offers of jobs or entitlements to satisfy the economic needs that supposedly lead people to take drugs. Finally, success in cutting off or diminishing the supply of opiates will drive up their price on the street, serving to make addiction economically unfeasible.
Failure to Resolve the Problem
This materialistic approach to dealing with opiates and drugs in general is doomed to fail. It assumes that abusing drugs is a misguided economic decision, which can be reversed by the proper consideration of one’s self-interest. However, we know that abusing drugs is a behavior that just ignores self-interest. People take drugs for reasons far removed from economic considerations.
This materialistic approach also abstracts from the fact that the drug scourge is universal in modern society, and thus not limited to those in poverty. Opiate abuse is merely the poor man’s version of the more sophisticated designer drugs used by the rich. The epidemic’s real cause lies in something universally greater, and it must be addressed.
A Frustrated Search for Happiness
There are undoubtedly many psychological, social, and other factors that contribute to the reasons why people take drugs. However, one reason that cannot be excluded is that the abuse of opiates and drugs comes from a frustrated search for happiness in a world devoid of the spiritual and metaphysical. Money, entitlements, and pleasures simply do not satisfy modern man. Only something greater can address the deepest desires of the heart.
Such a conclusion is confirmed by modern sociologists who have observed a generalized dissatisfaction in modern societies endowed with every convenience and freedom.
“Amidst the satisfaction people feel with their material progress,” writes sociologist Robert E. Lane, “there is a spirit of unhappiness and depression haunting advanced market democracies throughout the world, a spirit that mocks the idea that markets maximize well-being and the eighteenth-century promise of a right to the pursuit of happiness under benign governments of people’s own choosing.”
Despite tremendous opportunities for enjoying life, happiness proves elusive. And drug use is ever more intense and widespread.
The Absence of the Sublime
Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches that every man desires happiness, which is only fully found in the attainment of the Perfect Good. That is to say that every man has a passionate desire to search for the good, true, and beautiful in all things, which will eventually lead him to that Perfect Good which is God.
This innate quest for happiness is aided by those meaningful encounters with what has been termed the sublime. The sublime consists of those things of transcendent excellence that cause men to be overawed by their magnificence. It captivates and invites people and nations to look beyond self-interest and self-gratification and seek out higher principles, the common good, or ultimately God, thus giving meaning and purpose to lives. Whether manifested in works of art, great feats, or religious piety, the sublime has always had the capacity of inciting sentiments of loyalty, dedication, and devotion. The sublime serves as a gateway to God and when balanced and virtuous accords fallen man with some degree of intense happiness.
A Pseudo-Sublime High
In a secular society that does not value those things that are spiritual or sublime, there is a void that must be filled with something of an intense spiritual nature.
Hence, drugs become an escape from a sterile world that does not address these spiritual needs. However, drugs also become a false substitute for the search for happiness and the sublime. The incredible intensity of drugs gives the impression of a pseudo-sublime high that does not overawe but overwhelms. It does not captivate but rather annihilates the person. People seek happiness in drugs knowing full well that the drug is a lie; it will never satisfy them. They know drugs can only provide a temporary high. However, inside this brief intense high, there is a delightful yet deadly felicity. Driven by the desire for this extraordinary experience, they surrender themselves to their own destruction.
The abuse of opiates is aggravated by the breakdown of the structures of order that facilitate the search for true happiness. When family, community and faith are broken, the person is left isolated and desolate. They are thrown into the frenetic intemperanceof modern-day life. The temptation to abuse drugs becomes much greater. Hence, the abuse of opiates in rural America reflects not only an economic crisis but a demonstrable moral and social breakdown that have destroyed the bedrock institutions that were once strong in those areas.
A Problem No One Wants to Solve
Thus, there is another opiate crisis that no one really wants to solve. It involves not drugs, but an addictive habit that makes people obsessed with all that is superficial, sensual and frenzied. It manifests itself in a culture that, like an opiate, attaches people to that which renders life empty and purposeless.
Officials do not go to the cause of the problem because few dare venture into the world of those sublime and supernatural things that address the yearnings of the human heart. Few dare mention a God that desires the good of those he created for eternal happiness with him. Indeed, mankind was created to pursue a spiritual heaven, but once the expression of and hope for this heaven is removed from daily life and society, many throw themselves into an earthly hell.
As seen on Crisis Magazine.