I went to a Bernie Sanders debate party organized by the owner of a local bar and restaurant the other evening, to hear out the views of our three Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential elections. The moderator asked all three candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley how they would address the heroin crisis afflicting the Northeast and the United States in general.
Whenever I listen to politicians and to the news in general in the United States, I am often struck how much the materialistic philosophies of the 20th century still pervade our culture. What I mean is that we almost never ask why people behave the way they do. We almost never ask in what ways our culture and societal values are responsible for the choices people make. Instead, we ascribe some kind of outside, superficial response to say, gun violence – should we reduce the number of guns or regulate their use. We don’t ask why Americans want to own and use guns and why we have as many guns in this country as we have citizens. We don’t ask why so many Americans are using heroin and other narcotics.
Bernie Sanders explained that too many doctors prescribe prescription opiates which cause many young people to make the switch to heroin. He put the blame on the doctors, and some blame, to be sure, should be placed there. But the deeper issue is this: Why do so many people feel the need to take drugs?
I believe the answer is due to a widespread feeling of emptiness, generalized anxiety and depression that a very large percentage of Americans experience. This affliction affects young children, teenagers, young adults, adults through middle and old age. In other words, almost all Americans experience at least periodic episodes of feelings of helplessness, lack of purpose, anxiety, inability to deal with frustration, and a sense of not knowing how their lives can be lived in a meaningful way.
The use of drugs and gun violence are directly correlated. I do not believe that what we call mental illness and how we distinguish certain behaviors as normal and others as abnormal is in any way helpful in resolving these problems and helping people move away from not being able to manage their chronic fears and frustration. The fact is that today, a high percentage of parents raise children to distrust authority, to distrust their own self, to ignore their own inner voice and talents, and to follow blindly on an academic path which may have nothing to do with that child’s innate talents or abilities. Too much is done for children, and because of this, many children develop no sense of mastery, personal accomplishment, and independence.
It is ironic that conservative candidates constantly blame poorer classes for irresponsible behaviors, ascribing a passive welfare mentality to those who are challenged by poverty. They say that the working poor do not take initiatives and that they are “takers”. When, in fact, it is the middle class, upper middle class, and the wealthiest members of American society who raise their children to be completely passive. These parents run their children’s lives and allow them no freedom to take initiatives. The children of the poor are much more resilient and creative, because their parents are working several jobs, trying to make ends meet. They don’t have the time or the money to micromanage their children’s lives. Today, the children of the wealthy are much more likely to suffer from depression and to become addicted to drugs such as alcohol, heroin, Adderal, Ritalin, and many controlled and prescription substances.
Gun violence in America is rampant. From suicides and inner city violence to the outbursts of the deranged in mass shootings, we are constantly reminded on our nightly news broadcasts how vulnerable we are to the inability of other human beings to control their violent impulses. It seems obvious that the inability to look inward and take responsibility for self makes it much easier to blame others. As a nation, we constantly look to other countries to project our own collective shadow. At one time it was Communist Russia, now it is Isis. It is easier to see what is dark outside the self, but it is much harder to get to know the shadow within and to accept and integrate it. Without that shadow work, we will continue to collectively suffer from depression, drug use, and gun violence. Fighting our “enemies” and blaming immigrants and terrorists for our problems will not bring peace, safety, or stability to our country.
Can the regulation of the sale and purchase or ownership of guns make a significant change to this reality? I am not so sure. I feel that if we were to deal with the deeper social and cultural issues that cause widespread fear and insecurity as well as lack of purpose, we would experience a natural shift. Less people would feel the need to own a gun and would use their energy and time serving others rather than trying to protect themselves from overriding tensions caused by a poorly constructed inner life.
How can we start the shift?
I feel certain that the way we parent our children and the values we hold dear are the basis from which most change could begin. When I was working in a public library, every day I would see parents neglecting their children by being too indulgent. What I mean by neglect is this: they did not teach their children to respect the rules of the library by informing them what those rules and boundaries are. They did not give their children the respect those children were due by using the library experience to teach them how a library works, and how to respect themselves and others in a social environment. These parents would behave badly themselves, talking loudly, taking out materials, moving tables, chairs, and scattering toys without regard for staff. Often, I would see parents and caregivers engrossed in their cell phones rather than spending quality time with their kids. There are some good parents who do the hard work of teaching by example, but they are no longer a majority.
A child needs to know where the boundaries are, and in order to respect self and others, there need to be realistic consequences for their choices and actions. Children need time and freedom to play and develop their creativity and critical thinking skills. Children do not need so many organized activities and stress-producing goals set for them by anxious and often narcissistic parents who have a rigid idea of what success is.
We have become a society which is fear-based and classist, in which freedom to create your own career and develop your individuality have become extremely limited. Children of all social classes suffer from anxiety and depression in part because of lack of freedom to play, inappropriate parental expectations, as well as poor diet and excessive environmental toxins due to the abuses of big business and the collaboration of our government with these forces.
If we want to transform our society, solve climate change, and give our children a sense of purpose, we need to shift our own values away from the superficial and materialistic goals of power, and success defined as a specific set of possessions and status symbols to a more purpose-driven society in which each child is raised to reach his or her own innate potential. A parent’s role is to help reveal a child’s talents and to help him or her to develop those talents. A parent who is not narcissistic and status-driven will realize that perhaps this will not lead a child to go to a so-called “top” university or to own his or her own “McMansion” in a gated subdivision. But, parents, many of these children are victims of this mindset and many of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol or sex as early as age 9.
Mental illness should not be an acceptable condition to medicate, as Americans love to do. People search for easy pill-popping solutions to spiritual and social problems. These addicts and gun abusers are in fact crying out for help. I find it hard to believe that so many people are abusing drugs for no reason, or that so many people are afraid of their fellow man or woman that they need to be armed at all times. Limiting access to guns or drugs will not solve this unease.
Why don’t we question why our broadcast media focuses almost solely on violence and promotes fear and fear-mongering? Why, if we are a so-called nation that loves freedom and democracy are we so afraid of terrorism and refuse to help people in need, such as immigrants and refugees? Why are we not promoting love of self and others? We have a huge class of fundamentalist Christians which more often than not promote fear and judgment of others over love and empathy for all, regardless of belief, origin, race,or social class. Why do these Christians not want affordable healthcare, access to healthy food, or fair wages for all Americans? Where is their compassion? Do they not see that the politicians and business leaders they support are motivated only by personal gain and greed, which they thinly disguise under Jesus rhetoric?
There are many aspects of American life which make little or no sense to me. Above all, I see an idol worship of money, power, and status which skew the way businesses are run, the way families raise their children, and the way our government manages our institutions.
We can start on the long road to curing over-ownership and use of guns as well as drug and alcohol addiction by a healing process in which we shift our values to putting people, animals, and the environment over money, power and status. Every child should be considered precious and should have equal opportunities for education in a healthy environment. All children should be able to play and enjoy a real childhood with real responsibilities to help them become strong and compassionate individuals. Businesses can be profitable while having a primary goal of serving others, of serving and protecting our environment. Our economy can grow and benefit all people.
We, as a nation, can become a purpose-driven nation which shows an example by becoming a guiding light in the environmental / sustainability fields. We have so many brilliant individuals who could devote their energies and create many new business and jobs here in America, changing the way we build our homes, the way we produce energy, the way and where we work, and the way we transport ourselves and grow our food and other products and services. There is so much we could do that is positive. So much we could do to give hope to people who feel hopeless. So much meaningful work we could create together. We need artists, musicians, creative engineers, thinkers, and developers to reinvent a world in which we all belong and are all needed. We can move away from a classist, racist, and unequal society to one in which we are all valued. It takes a lot of work to become aware and to develop empathy for self and others.
So much satisfaction comes from living a life in which we use our innate talents and abilities. So much joy comes from developing those talents and seeing that we are valued for who we are. This is what makes a life feel meaningful. We can live in a small house, and we can be extremely content with few possessions. We can focus on creating healthy food with easy and affordable access to all, reducing the need for much of what today’s healthcare industries provide. We can focus on wellness and preventive care and reserve the extremes to extreme situations, instead of pushing so many Americans to a state of chronic poor health caused by overloads of emotional stress, environmental toxins, toxic substances by overuse of chemicals in household products and plastics, and poor quality food and water.
Eventually, by living a life in which we focus on well-being, we will solve the problems of wide-spread drug abuse, gun abuse, suicide, depression, and environmental abuse by overuse of toxic pesticides, chemicals, drugs, fossil fuels, and plastics.
We can do it together. We can live without giving in to fear. We can choose life, love, and abundance. Everyone will benefit.
Recommended reading: How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims (click on link for New York Times review of this book)