Sunday, November 12, 2017

An Epidemic That Is Sweeping Up Our Young People

            There is a lot of coverage in the news lately of an epidemic that is sweeping the world, although its worst outbreak seems to be in the United States.  It’s not an epidemic with a microorganism that spreads with contagion from person to person.  Rather, people spread the illness directly to one another.  And we are talking about a very dangerous illness here.

            What is this illness that is being discussed so much on television and radio, and in newspapers and magazines?  Heroin addiction.  Upper middle class fifteen year old teenagers are shooting up heroin.  In the U.S., government officials are declaring heroin addiction a national emergency and are pushing to set up enough treatment centers to adequately confront the problem.  Certainly, treatment centers are an important part of dealing with heroin addiction.  But another part that is just as important, maybe more important, is trying to determine what is causing this epidemic, and why is it occurring at this time in history.

            Those of you who have been steady readers of this column know that the problem of drug use has appeared here several times.  So now may be a good time to review some of what has appeared before.  First of all, before we go into what causes heroin addiction, I’d like to discuss different kinds of causality.  Most of us in the Western world have been brought up to think that causality occurs when one kind of defined discrete entity or phenomenon has an impact on another kind of defined discrete entity or phenomenon.  This is what has been called figure causality in this column.  It is a more measurable causality, because both the causal agent and the consequences of the cause have defined discrete boundaries.  It is a causality that lends itself to understanding through scientific experiments and scientific observation.  It is a causality, the understanding of which gives humans a sense of control and dominion over entities and phenomena in such a way that they are susceptible to scientific understanding.  This is why modern technological humans like to believe that most processes in the universe can be understood in terms of figure causality.  Figure causality allows people to believe that they can ultimately be masters of almost everything they encounter.

            The problem is that there are many life situations that keep appearing where models of understanding based on figure causality have not led to effective solutions of problems.  Certainly the epidemics of drug use that have ravaged modern society have not been susceptible to resolution by specific focused solutions up until now.   Since when I was growing up in the 1960’s, there have been waves of popularity of different drugs.  But no matter what we have tried to implement to combat drug use, nothing has really worked.  Now that heroin is becoming a drug of choice among all sectors of society, it becomes important that we start to shift our thinking to consider not only new previously unconsidered causes, but also new kinds of causes entirely.  Only when we can properly identify a cause can we properly come up with a way of dealing with the problem.

            So perhaps we have been focusing on the wrong kind of cause in assessing not only the heroin epidemic, but also other kinds of drug epidemics that we have experienced in modern society.  Perhaps the cause is not one particular focused entity or phenomenon, but rather a whole living environment.  A living environment that has a configuration of stimuli that subtly impels people to take a drug like heroin.  Those of you who have read this column for a while will be familiar with my discussions about how modern technology has succeeded in creating living environments that are overly frictionless, excessively understimulating in order to protect people from the organic perishability found in more natural living environments.  We have believed that making the world more and more frictionless is what people need, is what people really want.  But sustained frictionlessness, sustained understimulation, makes people feel numb, not fully alive.  Too numb to have rich vibrant lives, too numb to make, receive and preserve organic imprints, too numb to properly prepare for death with a surrogate immortality.

            In addition, making a living environment frictionless means creating a lot of waste products as the friction-filled aspects of a living environment are compressed and pushed aside.  These friction-filled phenomena can never be totally eliminated from a field of experience and end up being experienced by humans as overstimulating stimuli, abrasive friction that can’t be properly absorbed.  Things like overcrowding, noise pollution, air pollution, speeding vehicles, and stress from the accelerated rhythms of modern work, where we have to act like machines.

            In my recent articles there has been a focus on the understimulating stimuli, or frictionlessness, as a causal factor, because people have been concerned about the negative effects of overstimulation for a long time, and understimulation has always seemed like such a desirable experiential state.  Nevertheless, one of the things that has been pointed out in this column is that overstimulation and understimulation can form a system and people can bounce back and forth between the two extreme states to try to obtain the balance of stimuli that they would be more likely to have if they still lived in a more natural living environment filled with organic stimuli.  Also, sometimes people may try to drown out an understimulation that overwhelms them with an understimulation they can control.  So yoga, meditation and calming drugs can be used to drown out numbness and boredom from a vacuum external living environment filled with minimalist modern architecture, pavement and asphalt covering over the ground and frictionless machines and computers that create frictionless mini living environments in the forms of screen reality and virtual reality.  In addition, such controlled vacuum living environments also can help people to withdraw from the stress and tension created by an overstimulating patch of living environment, a tension pocket, filled with abrasive friction.  Finally, selected controlled overstimulation such as dance clubs with loud electronic music and strobe lights as well as loud motorcycles can also help people to overcome undesired abrasive stress as well as numbness and boredom. 

            So the sensory distortion created by modern technology results in complex configurations of understimulation and overstimulation which, in turn, results in vacuum and tension pocket living environments.  And people confront these living environments with their own particular defensive patterns of responses in order to survive.  Ultimately the most stable mindset to adopt is that of becoming like a robot or an avatar in order to become as impervious as possible to the sensory extremes with which one is presented.  But the problem is that there are many people who are not successful in adopting this mindset.  They are incapable of toughing it out that much.

            Many of the people who are trying to deal with the sensory distortion that surrounds them, resort to drugs.  Heroin seems to be a drug of choice today among suburbanites and residents of small towns in rural areas.  Affluent suburban youth use heroin, because their lives have become so frictionless, so effortlessly comfortable, that they can’t get any traction to go on living day to day.  They are bored and they are numb, and they need some explosive kicks to feel alive.  One would think that people in small towns who live close to nature would feel some benefits from the resulting organic stimulation in their surroundings.  But even in rural areas, the excessive involvement with modern machines and with screen reality – movies, television, video games, computers, smartphones, and tablets – has reconfigured people’s capacities to not only connect but also interact with nature.  The technology has supplanted the natural surroundings as the actual living environment among which many rural people live.  Technology has also made life frictionless for rural people, such that they no longer experience the rich organic friction that comes from primary experience interaction with natural surroundings.

            This sensory distortion from the vacuum and tension pocket living environments in which people dwell today represents the nebulous inchoate grounding cause that is creating the surge in heroin use.  When I was growing up, jazz musicians were considered decadent for using this drug.  But now upper-middle class teenagers are also using it.  We have to find a way to introduce organic friction, to introduce traction from organic surfaces in people’s fields of experiences.  Among other things, people have to be gradually weaned away from such an excessive reliance on screen reality, which has become a very imperfect substitute for a life narrative in the external world.  The solution to the heroin epidemic is long-term and complex and involves moving in a direction of awareness about what we have become as human beings that most people today will find a great deal of resistance in doing.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow

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