In the work that I do, I find myself increasingly curious about this country’s growing obsession with pharmacology to alleviate suffering. Certainly what was once a right-sized response to genuine need, has become an insatiable and destructive behemoth.
Nowhere is this most evident than in the emerging prescription pain pill crisis that is weaving itself across every sector of American life, regardless of race, class or age. According to recent statistics, one in every four US families is affected by opiate addiction. It has been heralded at the largest man-made epidemic in history.
The media only gives this story a light nod by moving it into the hysteria of heroin use. And, no arguing, its statistics are stunning. A government survey found that the number of people who reported using heroin, 373,000 in 2007, rose to 620,000 in 2011. Eighty percent of them had used a prescription painkiller first.
However, the heroin story eclipses a greater, more pervasive story about how the need to not feel pain is becoming a cultural posture—indeed an entitlement— in America, that is unraveling the fabric of our society. Behind the gates of wealthy communities, in our boardrooms, in our churches, in our schools both public and private, lurks a tsunami of addiction that threatens to rob us of everything we hold important and precious.
I remember when I first caught a glimpse of how lost we were becoming. It was several years ago when I was contracted by an Australian publisher to create an anthology of stories on the topic of belonging. The book is called, aptly, Stories of Belonging (Finch).
One of its stories is a transcription from many days of my recorded interviews with of one of the listed custodial Elders of Australia’s Uluru (known to the whites as Ayres Rock), and a member of the Yankunytjatjara people. Australian Aboriginals are oldest surviving civilization, and today have the poorest outcomes and lowest life expectancy in the world.
Like all indigenous history, his people’s was one of horror, bloodshed, spiritual annihilation, and soul theft.
I called him ‘Uncle’ as was the respectful way to address him. Three long days of listening to his stories, irrevocably changed me. From him I learned that there existed the possibility to actually know you were one with everything, not as a spiritual experience, but as a basic assumption and knowing. Just like we know we breathe air.
After our time together, we went to the airport to catch our flights back home. In the early hours, the terminal was empty. I was relieved for no people, as I was suddenly aware of how vulnerable I was feeling back in ‘the modern world’. I wanted to grab Uncle by the arm and run away somewhere safe, like the desert.
Instead I asked him if he wanted a coffee.
We sat down next to each other in an empty café, sipping our cappuccinos. Uncle continued speaking. He talked about death, and how his people never mention the names of those who have passed away. They believe that the dead become one with something so precious, so sublime, that it is too sacred to even whisper their name.
For two hours Uncle continued to share such stories, while modernity began to awaken around us, and whirl past—men in suits walking briskly, talking frantically on cellphones, women in heels texting while balancing bags and satchels, late passengers hurtling past in a panic, children with Hello Kitty rolling bags.
We were the eye of some mad storm, bowed over the story of mankind’s existential belonging to all things, their denial of it, and their theft of it.
That moment, in the reflection of Uncle’s way of being, I saw modern man’s true face. Contrasted next to this wise, ancient person, I saw only spiritual destitution and an undeniable poverty of the soul.
I began to cry, as did Uncle. At first the tears were for Uncle and his people and what they had lost, but then the tears came inexplicably harder, from a place forgotten.
‘Are you crying for my people?’ he asked.
I nodded. And then I shook my head.
‘I’m crying for mine.’
He looked at me confused. I tried to explain, realizing how insensitive this may have sounded.
‘What happened to your people is the worst tragedy. I am by no means trying to diminish it when I say this…’ He listened.
‘Uncle, we could only do to your people, what we did to ourselves. We took everything from you, but there was one thing we could not eradicate–your memory of what you lost.’
I pointed to the crowd of people rushing past.
‘Look at them. They are the walking dead. And worse, they have no idea what they lost.’
And then I pointed to the most privileged, a Caucasian man in a well-tailored suit racing past shouting into his Bluetooth.
‘And he,’ I said, ‘though lifted up by what seems like white male upperclass privilege, is the most lost of them all.’
Nothing was the same for me after that moment, which now largely informs all my work, and my writing.
I’m convinced that this pain-pill epidemic is a symptom of that soul impoverishment. In a culture that demands comfort, pills are the final convenience. One could blame big pharma, the doctors, capitalism and pharmacists. But the epidemic would not have taken such vicious hold had we not been vulnerable in the first place.
While Hilary Clinton aims to make this a major campaign issue, I believe it important that we not just deal with the symptom. As a society, we must deal with its cause.
The good news is that the cause can be healed by each one of us, in the way we live our own lives…by calling back into our lives things like grace, soul, and meaning.
The workplace is one area where meaning and humanity must be restored. Which is why I love the work of Peter Senge (Presencing), Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Fred Kofman (Conscious Business) to name but a few.
As a start, watch for areas where you trade true meaning for comfort.
I’m not religious, but I do enjoy some of the archetypal references found in certain scripture, Lucifer being one of my favorites. Lucifer, was beloved archangel who stood so close to God that God’s light made him appear like God himself. His belief he was himself the light caused his fall from grace.
Lucifer is the saccharin to sugar, a flashlight to the sun. And, comfort is the Lucifer of peace.
We rush all day chasing Lucifer: to get to the elusive end of our checklists. To medicate our anxiety. To find greater efficiencies. To text while driving. All for the ultimate holy grail of a peace we imagine awaits us if we could just get it all done.
But it’s a mirage we chase. And the more we chase it, the unhappier we become. And in a culture that is used to getting what it wants, prescription pills provide the ultimate Lucifer to enlightenment itself.
So next time you are looking for your next fix, in what ever way you define it, turn instead to something Uncle taught me that he would turn to…a tree, a pet, a sunset, a breath, a touch.
What we are really looking for exists right now, unconditional of any to-do item checked off; unconditional of whether our back hurts or not, or our marriage is working. What we are looking for is the real thing, our explicit sense of belonging to the whole.
…of Belonging itself.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones
Huffington Post, What Hillary Clinton Could Do About the Opioid Crisis
Stories of Belonging (Finch), edited by Kali Wendorf
Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions, by Gerald May