Many of us, perhaps most of us, all do some form of drug. When our drug of choice isn’t marijuana it’s usually alcohol. And when it’s not either of those the national standard for our consumer society is, of course, shopping. More than likely it’s probably both or all of the above.But for most in the West, shopping fills the void and thrills the would-be thrilled. Several research studies have revealed the similar effects shared by shopping and other drugs. When people go shopping, a brain chemical known as Dopamine is released into the body, the same chemical that’s released when people drink alcohol, sniff cocaine or fall in love. Dopamine acts on the brain’s reward center, and is what gives people a “shoppers high” when looking for new things to buy.
I’ve experienced this subtle euphoria many times while standing in the checkout isle at that final moment of purchase. It reminds me of the quick-cut shots in Requiem For A Dream: pupils dilating, chemicals hitting the bloodstream, eyes dimming as the drug washes over the user. Not surprisingly, shopping provides a much more safe (though far more expensive) fix. Indeed, for the well-adjusted and law-abiding, shopping is one of America’s favorite past-times.
Not to say buying things or smoking pot or drinking alcohol is bad in and of itself. They’re not. It’s our habit of getting addicted to them that’s cause for the question: why do we do drugs? Doesn’t matter if your personal drug is socially acceptable or not. Television, gambling, sex, video games, sports, eating, prescription drugs, work, Facebook, wealth accumulation, relationships – the point is that culturally, socially, very few of us are not addicted to something.
If you want to be cynical you could say that what you’re addicted to is what makes you – you. Truthfully though, most people are addicted to the same things. From a social perspective, it’s what makes these addictions okay. It’s what makes them not seem like addictions.
But why do so many people get addicted to things in the first place? The benefit of getting addicted to something is, in essence: escape. We get so narrowly and compulsively focused on something that we block out the rest of reality. Now, why would we want to insulate ourselves from reality so fully that our behavior is destructive to other aspects of our lives?
I believe, inherently, that the structures of society are driving us mad. Though most of us believe ourselves to be fairly well-adjusted, healthy individuals, we are all patients in the asylum together now.
Besides anthropologists, most of us don’t have the kind of broad cultural perspective necessary to see our society objectively.
If a hunter-gatherer saw how we behave towards each other (at work, at school, in politics, with strangers), he’d think we’d all gone nuts. We lack the perspective to even question the sanity of things like banks, schools, bosses, employees, capitalist economics, and needing money in our society simply so we won’t starve.
Modern life has become a frenzied, stressful, and overwhelming place. Our mental environment is polluted with advertisements and commercial intrusions of every kind.
Most of us do not think there is a connection between the basic structure of our capitalist society and the increasing social and mental problems that we in the affluent West have become affected by. If you’re depressed, for example, the problem isn’t the environment that made you depressed. If you suddenly flip out and want to shoot up a school or fly a plane into a government building, the problem isn’t society. The problem is you. Fortunately, we have a capitalist solution for that, too, of course. It’s called Prozac. So please let us know when you’re back to enjoying the work-and-spend cycle like the rest of us.
Now, beyond the more visible examples, there is a much more subtle neurosis at play here that affects all of us. To get a handle on this, I believe we need to seriously question the fundamental insecurity that is caused by needing to “get a job” simply to survive. It is the basis of our entire civilized paradigm. We’re kicked out on our own when we’re 18. Our parents do this as a sort of “tough love” – to build character, of course, though really it only causes the adolescent anxiety and insecurity. Regardless, they’re forced to get a low-paying job to pay rent every month, sucking away monthly income that never allows them to get ahead. They get into debt so they can go to school (a requirement now to get any decent-paying job). After graduating, they’ll hopefully have good enough credit and be able to make enough money to buy a house (which means more debt). A mortgage on a house usually won’t be paid off for twenty years, keeping them in debt to the banks for half of their adult lives. And all of this, all of this just so they can have a stable roof over their head – to fulfill the second most basic necessity in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
One of the most endearing memes in our society is that if you just work hard enough, anyone can make it. But despite how many people work earnestly in this system, it’s still not enough. We get into debt with the hopes of graduating from college and getting a good job. We keep paying rents or mortgages, but millions of people still find themselves devastated by the loss of their home or their job or both.
When you add it all up, I just have to ask what kind of psychological harm this is doing us. With all the anxiety, stress, isolation and insecurity that stems from this basic fact of civilized life, it is no wonder so many of us become addicted to one form of drug or another.
So, here’s what I would really like to ask: would we feel the desire to use our drug of choice so much if the world was different? If there were fewer problems, both on a personal and global level, would we keep looking for happiness at the bottom of a bottle or in the halls of the shopping mall?
If there were new mediums for our society to derive meaning and happiness, and less social oppressions conforming our lives into little boxes of paying rent and toilsome work – would we hold onto these drugs in our free time?
It may not be easy to imagine a world so amazing that smoking a joint or having a drink would somehow lessen the experience. For a moment though, let me argue that if we were to live in communities with radically different social and cultural structures, many of us, though not all I think, would have far less desire to take these consumer opiates, or at least not as much. If you are high from the excitement of a more spontaneous, authentic life – pot, alcohol, consumerism, TV and all the rest do, truly, make you “stoned” and number in the long run to more genuine forms of happiness.
Now, you might be saying, that’s great and all, but it doesn’t change the fact that we all have to work to live, the society around us is still mad and that’s not changing anytime soon. True. But here’s the problem: every time we use a synthetic or commercial means to produce a good time for us– whenever we want to relax or escape for a while– we give up the possibility of a radically more positive and saner future – if not for us, then for our grandkids. Beyond that, on simply a personal level, we are giving up the means to find happiness from within ourselves. If we chose not to watch TV, drink, or go shopping when we wanted to have fun, we would have to think of some other activity, like going biking, or going to the lake with friends, or drawing, or countless other activities that require our participation to create the experience. Whatever it is that we like to do, they would be activities that would rely on ourselves to find contentment and fun, and I think there is a certain worth in being able to create happiness independent of external forces. Substances that do most of the work of creating happiness for us create dependencies. Granted, it’s certainly a lot less work, but I don’t think these solutions are very healthy.
It’s like when a person only feeds their body fast food. Because most fast food contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil, a fat that is synthetically manufactured and not found in nature, your body doesn’t know how to process the fat and convert it into energy. But if you eat fast food long enough your body will manage to process it, however inefficient, just the way we are learning to process the low-protein high-fat entertainment we take in every day. Because it doesn’t really work that well, we just need more of it to satisfy us, more to find that moment of immersion. More infotainment, more intoxication, more personal Hollywood scandals, more absurd and violent TV shows, more shopping – more visual and physical stimulus.
Amazingly, the way these partially hydrogenated fats work, they also block the processing of healthy fats, making us more dependent on the bad ones. We are reaching this crisis in society today: where real hearty forms of joy and happiness are becoming more and more scarce. The beauty and joy once appreciated and gained from connecting with nature, for example: getting out into the wilderness and enjoying the intrinsic quality of a local place is becoming a rare and misunderstood outlet to finding more joy in life.
Kids today living in urban jungles are increasingly growing up without this fundamental connection. Nature is something “out there,” read about in textbooks and more and more seems boring and uninteresting in comparison to the frenetic entertainment of TV, video-games, and the cellphone-shopping mall life of today’s kids. Kids are fed a constant data-stream of media representations that are constantly addressing them, putting them at the center of attention. In the world of media representations, it’s all about You You You. Naturally, when a mediated child has their rare encounter with an unmediated experience, out in the wilderness where nothing was created specifically for them, and things just are – the child may find themselves at a loss to know what to do with themselves. What’s the point of being out here again? The fun kids perceive they want to have nowadays is almost always commercialized, packaged, and purchased at a store.
Of course, this is true for all of us grown-up kids as well. The myriad forms of entertainment produced for us has become remarkably proficient at its task. A glossy shine packages all of the promises that the consumer/work/spend paradigm offers. Billion-dollar ad agencies and the brightest young minds straight out of school have meticulously studied the art and science of stimulating our desires. The older we get, the more natural this mad society becomes, and the more content we are with what it has to offer. Conditioned to accept this culture’s escape routes for long enough, it’s possible we wouldn’t even recognize a better life if we saw it. And if we could see it, I’m wondering if it would appear so alien to us that we would choose the comfortable and familiar over the less known, even though we secretly hate it. What if we have gone too far, and lived so long this way that we now identify with our addictive habits so much that we see them as a part of ourselves? Toxic as our culture may be to our health – with all its drugs and distractions – if these drugs have become our comforting friend, could we let them go?
Ladies and gentlemen! Has our bread become baked?
Well, maybe. But if we were to wean ourselves from the fast-food opiates of our culture, I think it’s possible we could begin to discover new mediums for creating meaning in our lives, and possibly a source of joy that is far more valuable than any transient satisfaction.
Now if we want to dream big, let’s dream big. In the future, I see a society where the basic needs of every human being are guaranteed: food, shelter, health care – cradle to grave security. I see a future without the need for toilsome work, without nation-states, without rulers and ruled, hierarchy or war. You think this sounds like a fantasy, but it is possible now. The problem is not technical, nor creative. It is a problem of cultural lag – of the outdated institutions and values of our time not being able to keep pace with technological advancement.
But to realize this kind of future, however impossible – to imagine anything better than what we presently have – it means we must wake up to the problems that our generation must deal with.
Part of the apathetic nature of our generation lies in our awareness of large problems and our in-action to do anything about them. Indeed, this behavior, this conflict of mental awareness and physical inaction is in large-part what creates apathy. When one has ideals but doesn’t live by them, it creates a subtle but long-term conflict of self because it’s not authentic living. Apathy is a coping mechanism for this conflict. Either you have to take action or you have to stop caring. One has to happen for your inner psychology to not go nuts. To suppress that empathy and anger in the face of or awareness of oppression is usually the path of least resistance.
Yes, if we do seek the other path, we will get angry. Yes, there will be difficulties and we will be face to face with the true injustices of the world as they exist today. But ultimately, this anger can be a good thing. If we can channel it into creating new systems of living and cultivating the positive values we believe in it will be a hell of a good thing. So trust your instincts. Tap into the feelings you have in your gut, because an amazing thing happens when you do start to take action – your cynicism dissolves. Suddenly, everything isn’t hopeless, and you realize we can change the world. Suddenly, you have the power to choose for yourself. We can do it if we just work on doing it.
Now, let’s skip ahead a few years. You’ve gotten engaged. You’re reading alternative news. You’re involved in at least one local activist group and are working on projects that will effect change on multiple levels of society. You’re a damn awesome person! …in other words, and probably better in bed, too.
But, there’s a danger here. After a while, drugs can pose another potential problem. When we get fired up to change things and have begun to do the work that it’s going to take to make it happen, the changes we seek will still not come to fruition for some time. The large paradigm-shifting change we envision may be more than a generation away. What we will experience until then will be many small, sometimes large, but often immediately intangible differences that won’t be noticed until they have begun to stack up.
I noticed that after I had begun to do some of this work, it seemed like partaking in some of my old favorite hobbies was okay, now that it was accompanied by some more substance. I’d do the work, but a week later, many months later, now a couple years later, the big problems are still all there, so in the meantime, it made sense to go out and party.
The danger is, when going out to “find release” from our Monday morning problems, or our global-local problems, we risk depleting the energies we could otherwise give to solving the problem. We need energy to solve issues or think creatively, and partying like a rock-star will very well make us energized for the night, but likely burnt out in the morning.
What is required for us to be successful is a sustained effort. Major powers have so far always won out because of their sheer momentum to keep on churning – it’s what led the hippie generation to burn out and finally pick up day jobs and it’s what has led the rave generation to become equally jaded and apathetic, among other sub-cultures.
What was once a groundswell of potential creative energy and fresh thinking has again been diminished to what looked to be a passing fad of idealistic youngsters. Again, I think because we did not have the sustained, patient effort to turn our ideals into reality, and because these sub-cultures spent more time on drugs than working on solving root causes.
By doing drugs, we have potentially committed a gigantic fraud upon ourselves. Like our parents of the last generation, we are close to subduing the vibrant and powerful spirit of our bodies to the point of quiet bickering, to complaining quietly until it may have almost found solace in the only mediums it has been offered. We may now have almost accepted small pleasures and transient moments of commercial entertainment as enough – as if this was all there ever was.
Our generation, whether they subscribe to higher ideals or not, is quickly and dangerously reaching the point where it is enough to “just get by”: to get a job, watch movies, have sex and buy more stuff. We can leave these problems to someone else. Content with the barrage of entertainment that consumer culture has to offer, and overwhelmed by the daunting challenge our generation faces, there are enough distractions to keep us comfortably numb well after we’ve forgotten what real life is all about.
Now, it’s true. Even eco-minded activists like to watch movies or get engrossed in the occasional videogame, smoke a little cannabis – whatever it is. It’s certainly fine to enjoy these things. It’s just important to keep these forms in balance with everything else in life.
For me, activism, drawing, making music, dancing, biking, photography, culture jamming, writing and other creative arts are forms of enjoyment that will resonate with me long after the activity itself. And more specifically, these are cyclical activities that rise like a spiral towards some goal unnecessary to define. That is the problem for me with ingestible or entertainment drugs. They lead only back to themselves. Taking the drugs, finding the escape and release we find temporary solace. Then Monday morning comes; we turn on the TV, and we are confronted with the same problems. We have not grown wiser. We have not sought progress towards any alternative. The only recourse is another drug, to find oblivion once again the next weekend and do it all over again, week after week after week.
This cycle is likely filled with inspirational moments, rousing declarative moments to change and wrestle away the bouts of apathy. The moment reading this maybe another one. But affirmations are not useful by themselves. They must be followed by focused, practical action – action that reinforces our beliefs of who we are. To be aware of the traps that lead back to the same looping cycles is a good start. From there, we can choose what step we want to take next.
Translation in Spanish
Tim Hjersted is the co-founder and director of Films For Action, a people-powered library for social change.
Films For Action was formed by a few friends from Lawrence, Kansas in 2006 in response to a fundamental critique of our highly consolidated, for-profit media system. We believe a healthy media ecosystem is essential to a healthy democracy.