Andrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor
We hear the cry of many, and perhaps we have done it ourselves on occasion – “what is the point of it all?” We do it when we are sick, when we have lost a loved one or perhaps when we are simply at a low point and fed up with life. How can we counter this in alcohol and drug recovery treatment?
I remember screaming from a clifftop into the wind one night when drunk as a young teenager. It’s not hard to see what prompts the cry when we look at the suffering around us. I was suffering at the time. Alcohol or drug use may then be a way of coping – self-medication – or escaping.
But this is a temporary solution. It’s shutting out the underlying reality, whatever that is. For some, it just leads to a downward spiral and greater despair. It doesn’t provide an answer. It leads to more suffering. We see some of this in the movie Trainspotting based on the 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh. It’s a tough watch.
In the movie, drug taking posits a filling of the gap in users’ lives through inhabiting an alternative reality. It’s a removal from the world or a detachment, without purpose or meaning. Ironically, it leads to another form of self-destructive attachment – enslavement by drugs. It stems from a spiritual malaise.
The poem Choose Life by John Hodge is narrated in the movie and presents what for many is the only “normal” alternative to “substance use disorder”. Rather than sitting in a squalid flat taking heroin (or drinking to oblivion), why not choose the semi-bourgeois existence of higher education, a job, a salary, two cars and two holidays per year. But this is precisely an expression of what the ancient philosophers called acedia – listlessness or agitated boredom.
I suppose that sitting on a sofa bingeing on TV box sets, having pizzas delivered to the front door, and planning the next flight to the Costas is preferable to a life of misery blighted by addiction. For some, it might provide the comfort of ordinariness or normalcy. But is this really all that there is to life?
It’s not a genuine alternative. The fundamental question is how we assert the self over and above this flawed form of existence and whether or not we have the means to do it. The wretchedness of our condition has to be revealed to us and provoke a response in self-recognition.
Similar sentiments are expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his philosophical novel Nausea (1938). Sartre narrates the mundane life of Antoine Roquentin, with his repeated behaviour, surroundings and so on. The text achieves a sense of being overwhelmed or stifled by inane detail reported over and again.
Roquentin wallows in melancholy and experiences this as nausea – but he is transformed in a famous passage when he contemplates the root of a cherry tree. He realises that there is no going beyond the brute fact of the tree root. It’s not accessible to the intellect for us to discern its ultimate meaning. It has no meaning. Instead, existence for Sartre is what we ourselves perceive and how we impose meaning in responding to it.
We sometimes experience this “nausea”, if we can call it that, in our everyday lives. Cycles are repeated relentlessly. We get up in the morning. We take the kids to school. We go to work. We come home again in the evening and slump in front of the TV, endlessly surfing through channels of dross. Finally, we give up and go to bed, and then repeat the whole thing the next day. We search for a sense of release and, for some, it comes in the form of Friday night binges.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard says that “the sickness unto death is despair” and equates this with loss of self. This is more than just listlessness or boredom. It implies a sense of giving up caring about oneself and one’s place in the world. Indifference leads to despair. This is the danger of apathy. Wrongly directed desire then turns to bodily craving, and the search for a “high” to deal with suffering.
There are surely greater possibilities than those expressed in Choose Life. The genuine choice is one between merely existing and being-in-the-world. The answer or the strategy proposed by Sartre is that we can transform ourselves by how we think and act in the world. This is existentialism. We can use imagination and ambition. Do what you want to do. Be whoever you want to be.
Sartre is saying – you don’t have to accept as normal what others do. You don’t have to be what others tell you to be. You do have the freedom to make choices.
He says that our lives are practical. Our existence is not defined by speculating about ultimate reasons and matters. Instead, it’s defined by the use of our practical reason – the things that we choose to do. But exercising this freedom requires courage and many are fearful of making change. So, in a way, he is saying Carpe Diem – grasp the day! Don’t be a couch potato! Make your own life!
This is all well and good, of course, but it’s easier said than done. An existentialist approach to life risks becoming mere subjectivism. In the “real world” – whatever that is, however, we all face objective constraints in the form of our upbringing, education and circumstances. True, we can make more of ourselves. We can exercise our imagination but can never deny the basic facts of our day-to-day lives.
Instead, genuine freedom is only achieved when we become more accepting of the world, let go of false attachments, decide what really matters to us, discover what makes us truly happy and become an authentic self – a human person living life in communion with others.
The meaning of life is not found at the bottom of a bottle!