Existential Emptiness and Drug Abuse


Miguel de Unamuno

Image via Wikipedia

One reason the so-called “War on Drugs” will not work is that it applies the criminal justice system to solve a problem that is not primarily a criminal justice matter. The crisis of drug use in the United States is not a crisis of criminality, but a crisis of emptiness. The U. S. was founded on an individualistic creed. As long as individualism was stemmed by families, neighborhoods, churches, and other community organizations, people were able to move outside themselves, love their families, make friends, and have a core set of values that gave meaning to their lives. With traditional religion, which was community-oriented, on the decline in favor of irreligion, or at best, a poorly defined individualistic “spirituality,” the core set of values that gave meaning to the lives of millions of people are no longer accepted. Beliefs in a God to whom people are responsible, a community of faith focused on worshipping that God and reaching out to neighbors, and a life after death that implies our lives do not end in utter annihilation, are fast fading. The United States strives to become more like secular Europe every day. Other institutions, such as the family, have broken down in many places, with little hope for recovery. This leads to neighborhoods of strangers and a world in which people are wedded to their computer screens and rarely get out to actually visit and talk to people.

The result is an existential crisis. People who cannot reach outside themselves either turn to their own selfish desires or are so lonely and empty that they turn to drugs to hide the pain. With no meaning in life and no hope for an afterlife, people seek cheap thrills–and what better cheap thrill than to stay at home getting the high of one’s life. Then the drug’s effect fades, the pain returns, and a person says, “I will seek it yet again.” People pretend to enjoy life , pretend to be happy, but these claims are sometimes belied by the massive abuse of alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs–why depend on these false gods if one is truly happy. Now I think marijuana should be legal, not because I support people using it for recreation only (instead of medicinal use) but because it is a waste of time to criminalize a drug that is no more harmful than alcohol. Yet I would not want a society of individuals high on pot. Pot is an escape. Alcohol can be an escape. Cocaine, heroin, LSD, DMT, ketamine–all these drugs and many more mask the despair of contemporary man. Heidegger, Sartre, and Camus were right to note this despair, but their atheism led them to support an individual’s pursuit of one’s own freely chosen goal as the ultimate meaning for that person’s life–there is no objective meaning. But if there is no objective meaning, why not escape life by using drugs? Material things offer only a temporary comfort. Relationships, unanchored in community, are relationships of convenience. Religion is rejected outright, or else some neo-Gnostic version of self-fulfillment is tried. All that is left are shells of people, like the woman in Miguel de Unamuno‘s book, Tragic Sense of Life, who raises her hands off her face when she is sitting on a park bench, revealing that she has no face at all. This is the horror of the lonely, empty American seeking one thrill after another and finally trying to maintain a chemical high.

The only way to solve the drug problem is at its source. Community should be restored, transcendent values encouraged, and people encouraged to seek more than their own selfish wants and reach outside themselves to their families, their neighbors, and their God. If we keep on using traditional law enforcement and the legal system to put out the fire of drugs, all that will result is small patches that the fire can easily jump. Hopefully communities will do what they can to restore stable families, encourage friendships, and support religion, if for no other reason than to fill the emptiness of people with the transcendent, something wholly other, something ultimately outside their own narrow self-interest, something that is Love Itself.

Death and Annihilation


"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

Image via Wikipedia

When I was a child, I broke Piaget’s rules of child development–I had a developed concept of death by age five–that of complete annihilation. Having a twin brother who died two hours after he was born complicated matters for me since I learned about death at a young age. When my dog, Fuzzy, was killed by a car, I learned first hand that death meant the loved being would not return. And then, while watching the Easter episode of “Davy and Goliath,” when Davy’s grandmother dies the day after she looks perfectly healthy when he’s playing in the attic with her and they’re playing catch in her front yard, devastated me. I could not see through death’s darkness to discover the light of resurrection.

Later I was taught the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body. Intellectually I believe it is true. But emotionally, at two a.m., lying on my left side, hearing my heart pound through the mattress, I wonder if my religion is totally false, whether God does not exist, and whether death really means annihilation, the blanking out of consciousness.

The ancient Epicureans believed in annihilation and the famous Epicurean poet, Lucretius, wrote, “Death is nothing to us,” since if a person is annihilated, he can no longer suffer–so what’s there to fear about death? When I have taught philosophy classes, I find that most students agree with Lucretius.

Few students agree with Miguel de Unamuno, the great Spanish writer, who in his book, The Tragic Sense of Life, considered the prospect of annihilation at death worse than images of suffering in Hell. Nor do they understand Milton’s Paradise Lost, when the demons are damned to hell–they say something to the effect, “Yeah, it’s bad that we’re in Hell, but at least we have our consciousness, our self-awareness.”

Most atheists claim that the prospect of annihilation is either a matter of indifference or of comfort. David Hume horrified Samuel Johnson by his lack of fear of annihilation. Bertrand Russell once said, “When I die, I shall rot,” and had no more problem with the prospect of annihilation that someone would with a minor inconvenience. Is my attitude due to a strange personality, or is there more to the fear of annihilation than meets the eye.

Rene Descartes famously said Cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” Although I do not agree with him that the human essence is consciousness (embodiment is an essential part of human personhood), there is something to be said for his focus on self-consciousness. Consciousness is a gift we take for granted. How wonderful it is to be aware of the beautiful world around us, to be aware of loved ones, to be aware of our bodies and our own thoughts! Can we realize what a wonderful gift that is? Losing one’s awareness totally and irretrievably, blanking out into nonbeing, is not frightening because of any pain I would feel, but because I would feel, think, and sense nothing at all–for all practical purposes, there would be no more me. That is why the promise of resurrection is so precious–it is a promise to restore us to the fullness of life, which includes our self-awareness–and more. But if death is the end, as St. Paul put it in I Corinthians 15, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” That is why I have always thought Hell was a gift of God’s mercy–He gives the unrepentant as much reality as they can have without annihilating them. I have no sympathy for the view of Edward Fudge and others who believe that Hell is total annihilation, for that would be an act of a cruel deity. The concept that I could be annihilated at death if the nonbelievers in an afterlife are correct frightens me, like it did Unamuno, almost infinitely more than the prospect of consciousness in Hell. We, like all creatures, have a natural desire to continue in being (philosophers as diverse as Aquinas and Spinoza recognized that fact). Death in the sense of total annihilation goes against that natural desire. This is why Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is one of the most frightening stories I have ever read–I won’t give away the ending–it’s worth reading. I pray for deeper faith, to go beyond, “Lord I believe, pardon my unbelief” to a faith that lives beyond doubt. May we all have such faith.