Here is a powerful article by Andrew Sullivan, on the opiate crisis in America. He writes:
It’s been several decades since Daniel Bell wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, but his insights have proven prescient. Ever-more-powerful market forces actually undermine the foundations of social stability, wreaking havoc on tradition, religion, and robust civil associations, destroying what conservatives value the most. They create a less human world. They make us less happy. They generate pain.
This is an important observation. Haven’t we all been told, from our earliest days, that to live in this capitalistic society, with this huge economy that produces so much stuff for us to get (Ice Cream! xBox! Hot Tub! Tesla!) is the best possible world to live in, where people can be so happy and fulfilled, because we can have all these things? Sullivan continues:
This was always a worry about the American experiment in capitalist liberal democracy. The pace of change, the ethos of individualism, the relentless dehumanization that capitalism abets, the constant moving and disruption, combined with a relatively small government and the absence of official religion, risked the construction of an overly atomized society, where everyone has to create his or her own meaning, and everyone feels alone. The American project always left an empty center of collective meaning, but for a long time Americans filled it with their own extraordinary work ethic, an unprecedented web of associations and clubs and communal or ethnic ties far surpassing Europe’s, and such a plethora of religious options that almost no one was left without a purpose or some kind of easily available meaning to their lives. Tocqueville marveled at this American exceptionalism as the key to democratic success, but he worried that it might not endure forever.
And it hasn’t. What has happened in the past few decades is an accelerated waning of all these traditional American supports for a meaningful, collective life, and their replacement with various forms of cheap distraction. Addiction — to work, to food, to phones, to TV, to video games, to porn, to news, and to drugs — is all around us. The core habit of bourgeois life — deferred gratification — has lost its grip on the American soul. We seek the instant, easy highs, and it’s hard not to see this as the broader context for the opioid wave. This was not originally a conscious choice for most of those caught up in it: Most were introduced to the poppy’s joys by their own family members and friends, the last link in a chain that included the medical establishment and began with the pharmaceutical companies.
It may be best to think of this wave therefore not as a function of miserable people turning to drugs en masse but of people who didn’t realize how miserable they were until they found out what life without misery could be. To return to their previous lives became unthinkable. For so many, it still is.
If Marx posited that religion is the opiate of the people, then we have reached a new, more clarifying moment in the history of the West: Opiates are now the religion of the people.
And then, later in the article, Sullivan makes an essential observation. What is it, really, that’s driving so many people to want to chemically check out of life? We could say, “sin.” And we wouldn’t be wrong. However, if we look around and think about the cultural world we’re all living in, we can see certain features of our culture—things we been told since our earliest days, the songs we sing, the shows we watch, the scientific theories of humanity we promote—and we might realize that we’ve created a world with absolutely no meaning. And then we’ve expected men and women to be happy and fulfilled living in that world.
And it just doesn’t work that way.
To see this epidemic as simply a pharmaceutical or chemically addictive problem is to miss something: the despair that currently makes so many want to fly away. Opioids are just one of the ways Americans are trying to cope with an inhuman new world where everything is flat, where communication is virtual, and where those core elements of human happiness — faith, family, community — seem to elude so many. Until we resolve these deeper social, cultural, and psychological problems, until we discover a new meaning or reimagine our old religion or reinvent our way of life, the poppy will flourish.
We have seen this story before — in America and elsewhere. The allure of opiates’ joys are filling a hole in the human heart and soul today as they have since the dawn of civilization. But this time, the drugs are not merely laced with danger and addiction. In a way never experienced by humanity before, the pharmaceutically sophisticated and ever more intense bastard children of the sturdy little flower bring mass death in their wake. This time, they are agents of an eternal and enveloping darkness. And there is a long, long path ahead, and many more bodies to count, before we will see any light.
Can you believe that last paragraph was published in New York Magazine? Listen to the biblical allusions. It should fortify us to remember that Christians have the only answer. Rehab, Capitalism, “a good job”—none of these things can fill “the hole in the human heart.” But we know the One who can. Maybe he wants to turn us from that long path ahead, and help us all see the light, before there really are many more bodies to count.