Toxic hedonism

Signs at a 7 Eleven gas station in Salem, Oregon (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
Signs at a 7 Eleven gas station in Salem, Oregon
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)

During my 50-plus years of psychiatric practice, I was consulted by many people who were in need of help. Some had severe depression of biochemical origin that could be treated with medication. Others had serious life problems that did not respond to medication. Yet others were not actually depressed, but rather were discontented with their lives. Some sought to overcome this discontent by numbing themselves with alcohol or drugs.
The problem of escaping from discontent by use of a chemical has given rise to the drug epidemic, which is resulting in an unprecedented number of fatalities, especially in people in the prime of their lives. I have watched the government spending many billions of dollars in a futile effort to stem the spread of drugs. Nothing seems to be effective.
Our culture seems to be committed to a life-goal of comfort and pleasure. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to be comfortable and contented, the fact is that reality is full of stress and even distress. If the moment we feel the slightest discomfort we reach for a chemical to relieve it, we become vulnerable to drug addiction.
If we have a strong desire to accomplish something that involves expending energy and tolerating some discomfort, we may do so to reach our goal. Students who wish to achieve a degree in law, medicine, science or business administration willingly give up hours of sleep to reach their goal. There are pleasures in life that one can achieve if one invests the proper effort. But if one believes that everything must come easily, one may be disappointed and reach for a chemical that will produce an instant “high.”
The young people who have died from drug overdoses were not ignorant. They thought that they could avoid the lethality of an overdose, but were willing to take the risk. Why? Because if the value of life lies primarily in having pleasure, then a life devoid of pleasure is not worth living.
I have no aspirations of launching a philosophical movement to give value to life, but I believe it is important for individual families to bring the issue to the fore. Youngsters with a strong religious belief have, or should have, bonding with God as their motivation, but many youngsters lack this.
The psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, survived the horrors of Nazi concentration camps. Everything was taken from him, yet he found meaning and purpose in life, which he shares with us in his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
There is no drug-free oasis. The lure of the “high” of drugs is everywhere, and our children are exposed to it. There is no immunity. We must prepare them to withstand the attraction to risk their lives for the “high” by instilling within them a firm value of life.

Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski is an American rabbi, a scion of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, and a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse