Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Drug Crisis in Vermont

    The governor of Vermont, Peter Shumlin, in his state of the state address focused on the alarming increase in drug addicts in that state. Heroin addiction is becoming a serious problem in a land of green hills, small villages, roads winding through the woods for miles and miles.

Biologists, psychologists and sociologists have studied the phenomenon of drug addiction for a long time. By some accounts there are more than 40 distinct theories that offer to explain addiction to opiates. But we are no closer to finding ways of reducing the number of people whose lives, and that of their families, are dominated by opiate addiction.

The intense search for solutions to the addiction problems encourages a focus on the problems of addicts that sets them apart from the general population. It tends to lead us to ignore the problems that addicts share with people who do not get addicted. One reason for using opiates is because in some way or another a person is deeply unhappy or depressed for long periods of time. Life is not rewarding, they feel worthless, or feel that others think of them so.
Many people in this world suffer from depression. Some end up addicted; some not. But they are all unhappy. This epidemic of unhappiness needs to be confronted. We need to look fearlessly at the misery that is a large part of life in America.

We live in the richest country in the world. People all over the world are amazed at how even poor people live in the United States. But it is not clear that we, as a people, are less subject to profound discouragement, to depression, to low self-esteem, to feeling excluded or disrespected than people in poorer countries. In international surveys of citizens’ satisfactions with their lives, the US ranks 12th from the top, the countries where inhabitants are most satisfied.

Why is that?

One reason is obvious. For a significant percentage of Americans, life is s struggle every day. They are poor because their earnings are low and therefore they do not get much respect, or they do not get much respect, for one reason or another, and are therefore poor. As long as we do not make equality real in the US, significant numbers of people are going to find life extremely difficult.
Living well includes a lot more than doing a job and spending the money you earn. Since many jobs are not challenging the worker’s abilities and malls resemble each other a great deal, the life of the worker-shopper often lacks excitement.

Here is a second obvious reason for an epidemic of sadness, boredom and depression. We are very rich. But we do not spend any of our resources to make work life more interesting for anyone. Should we not devote significant wealth and our technical sophistication to making work more interesting and to burden machines with the dull, repetitive tasks? How long are we going to put corporate profits ahead of the dull work life for so many working people?

But there are other reasons why many people--drug users among them--are depressed, bored, aimless. Observers commenting on drug abuse in northern Vermont say that for young people in these really small villages, life is difficult because “there’s nothing to do.” People get into trouble because they are bored.
Where there are no bars, nightclubs, theaters, museums, major sporting events to entertain you, you need to entertain yourself. We have made entertainment, excitement with one's life, into one more commodity, something you buy. As a result we are not educating our youngsters to learn to entertain themselves.

They do not leave school  as avid readers. They do not leave school eager to participate as citizens. They have not learned to like learning; they will not take free on-line courses, or learn new skills. We have not taught them to think about their lives; conversations about the good life are not part of our social existence.
I am not blaming the people who are bored and aimless. The blame belongs to all of us who acquiesce in a society that values only what can be bought and sold. Such a society does not teach the skills that are important: making your life as good as circumstances allow. We say over and over that education must prepare people for  work. We are overlooking, that if no one helps us learn how to live well, we may well end up being pretty miserable.

The drug crisis in Vermont or elsewhere lifts a corner of the cover spread by official optimism over the widespread discontent in America. It brings us, as a society, face to face with our impoverished values. We care too much about earning money and spending it; we  care too little about equality, about the quality of work and give no thought to speak of to thinking about how to live well.

We are profoundly mistaken when we define success as being rich or being a celebrity. Our goal should be to live a life that gives us ample reasons for ending every day grateful for having been alive, for having been active, having done well, learned something new. After spending time in a job that provides some challenges, we might whittle,  make music, tell old stories, or invent new ones. We could knit and sew, put on plays, read together, read tarot cards, or make a family tree. We could play with our children instead of buying a tablet for them on which they can play games by themselves.