Drugs: “The great escape” – but to where?
We keep hearing about the opioid addiction crisis. People are dying. What to do?
Some say get tougher; cut off the supply; lock up the pushers – death penalty even.
Others say accept it. Create clinics where people can indulge ‘safely’ – clean and controlled.
But nobody’s really saying what’s behind it, or behind much other drug abuse.
Sometimes people just slip into it; they go to the hospital and get addicted to the painkillers they were given – but many others actively seek drugs out.
“A desire to escape,” you can hear. But to escape from where? To what?
“Escape from reality,” we’re told.
The standard answer is that reality is just too tough for certain wounded or weak people, so they mindlessly tune out through drugs.
This answer, which seems to make sense, is based on the conception that the everyday material reality is the ultimate (and only) reality; one which most can successfully deal with, but some – the unfortunate addicts – cannot.
Yet others describe the dynamic very differently. Carl Jung termed addiction to be predicated by: “… the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness … the union with God.”
This sounds strange. What possible connection could there be between religious or spiritual yearnings and putting dangerous substances into one’s body?
The answer lies in focusing not on what these drugs do to people, but rather on what they do for them.
To a large extent, the appeal of drugs is that they induce a perception of reality that goes beyond the stark materialism of the secular consciousness. In other words, rather than being an escape from reality, it is in fact seen as an attempt to escape to or toward a deeper reality – one which modern secular society denies (or at best pays puerile lip-service to).
Drug users often describe their experiences in spiritual terms. “It was absolute bliss,” one former opioid user said. “As soon as I took it I realized ‘Oh, so this is what everyone’s talking about’. I felt the constrictions of my ego disappear; I was one with everything … it was like they describe the pleasure of Olam ha-Ba.”
Even users of the ever-more-legalized marijuana have described it as opening them up to new vistas of understanding, revealing previously-concealed connections and a depth of perception that goes denied and unnoticed in the everyday material word.
I was hesitant to write this and it is certainly not an advocacy of drug use. However one cannot defeat a scourge until it’s identified, and therefore it’s crucial for those who have never tried these substances (and hopefully never will) to realize that much drug use is not merely a mindless escape like tuning out to TV or other entertainment, but in fact is often an (albeit misguided) means toward the very real and legitimate goal of reclaiming the spiritually-based reality that modern society has all but snuffed out.
So now that we’ve named the problem, what’s the solution?
The obvious and intuitive answer is to provide the addict (or would-be addict) with an alternative and more genuine means to quench their ‘spiritual thirst’.
This is the basis of the popular and singularly successful 12-Step recovery programs. In a nutshell, the 12 steps are a methodical cognitive and behavioral path toward abandoning the illusion of a purely material, self-centered approach to life and adopting a genuine spiritual, God-centered one. This is its distinguishing feature.
Fine, you might say. But where does all of this – both the problem and solution – fit into the life of a Torah-observant Jew?
The Torah, you’d rightly claim, is the ultimate program of spiritual reality. How can someone from a Torah-observant home possibly be driven to slake their spiritual thirst on the poor substitutes of drug abuse (or even a non-Torah spiritual program)?
It should be a non-starter, yet the reported facts are that an alarming number of our youth are falling into exactly that hole.
This leads us to one of three possible conclusions: Either something is lacking in (a) the individual, (b) the Torah, or (c) the way the Torah is being presented.
Option ‘b’ is obviously false. The Torah is, as stated, the ultimate program of spiritual reality. It’s the God-given path to ultimate happiness for both body and soul.
This leaves us with options ‘a’ and ‘c’.
Option ‘a’ – The Individual:
The individual today has been trained to seek instant gratification. “You can have (and deserve) to have it all right now, no effort required,” advertising, media, and popular entertainment constantly screams at us.
The natural corollary of this claim is that just as someone would be foolish to go through the laborious process of apple-picking and pressing out the juice to quench their thirst when they can just get a glass of sweet, delicious apple cider at their corner store (or delivered to their door), why should they put in the effort required by a genuine spiritual path to quench their spiritual thirst when they can just smoke, shoot, or pop something that will get them there in a second?
Of course, this is a fallacious argument as all of these means, despite their initial appeal, are ultimately dead-ends that like drinking seawater leave the user ever-thirstier (and eventually sick or dead). Yet few have the foresight to look beyond their ease and initial apparent effectiveness.
Therefore those who have become addicted as a means of instant gratification may have to first ‘hit bottom’ and realize that their so-called solution (of use) is spurious before they’ll be open to genuine spirituality. And even among those who do, it may well take an addiction-focused spiritual program such as 12-Step to steer them back to the ultimate spiritual path of Torah.
Option ‘c’ – The Way Torah is Being Presented
Yet many of our youth are not as capricious as that. They view the popular culture with skepticism and are willing to invest the effort to acquire something real. Yet even these stable and sensible kids can – and unfortunately do – fall to these spurious ‘quick fixes’.
The question is why?
One reason may be that they’ve been denied access to and encouragement toward the direct soul-nurturing that comes through the study of the Torah’s more overtly spiritual aspects (hashkafa, machshava, penimius, chassidus, etc.).
While it’s true that all parts of Torah (including, and in a way especially, the ostensibly worldly-focused areas of halacha, gemara, etc.) are spiritually nourishing, there is a significant percentage of our youth who lack the tools to absorb that nourishment in such a subtle form (especially if not taught by those who themselves have successfully made that synapse) yet would thrive if exposed to the Torah’s more openly spiritual teachings.
However, as Rabbi Eli Munk, zt”l, put it in his introduction to Ascent to Harmony (Feldheim Publications):
“Today’s world is fascinated by the worship of rational thought … metaphysics and mysticism are held in low esteem. This worldly atmosphere has even infiltrated the Torah world, by overstressing the study of the concrete and more easily understandable (נגלה) at the expense of the higher concepts of abstract thought (נסתר).”
While no one can deny the importance of the ‘revealed’ Torah (or even the wisdom of its primacy in our yeshivas’ curricula), the lack of a subsidiary yet significant and sophisticated presentation of the Torah’s more transcendental aspects can leave the sensitive soul’s spiritual thirst unquenched and susceptible to seeking impure waters.
As beneficial as such an infusion of more spiritually-focused study would be, even more important is to foster the genuine experiential spirituality that results from (the basic and fundamental Torah ideal of) developing a real and personal relationship with the Creator.
This includes making sure that our youth are exposed (in school and elsewhere) to prayer services that, with all their due attention to properly executing the ‘how’s’ and ‘when’s’ of prayer, never lose focus on imparting and enabling the ‘why’s’ and ‘to Whom’ that comprise prayer’s primary purpose of connecting us personally and deeply with Hashem.
Someone who feels a spiritual uplift and connection in davening (and not just that he is fulfilling a regimen) is less likely to seek it elsewhere.
Beyond the set prayer services, our children should be encouraged to simply ‘talk’ to Hashem, candidly and in the language in which they’re most comfortable, either at set times or as they go about their day. Like any relationship, our relationship with the Creator (and palpable awareness of His presence) is built and nurtured through sincere and consistent communication.
While this practice has been commonly found amongst Torah leaders of all ‘persuasions’ within the frum world (the Chofetz Chaim, for one), it has sadly come to be viewed as something strange or foreign by the general (and even learned) observant Jewish populace.
Most important of all is for all of us, parents and educators, to liveTorah Judaism as the unmatched spiritually vibrant and palpable lifestyle that it’s truly meant to be (as one role model is worth a thousand lectures). If we do, we might just be pleasantly surprised to find that our naturally God-thirsty Jewish youth suddenly lose the urge to look (or imbibe) anywhere else.