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Comfortably Numb

Matt Harris

America's addiction problem is only getting worse.

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, identified the culprit as the consumer culture of the liberal West. By transforming citizens into consumers through advertising and other subtle forms of manipulation, Lasch thought, modern consumer capitalism “teaches the individual to want and need a never-ending supply of new toys and drugs.” In other words, it teaches addiction, which in any context is characterized by an overweening narcissism and the desperate insistence on immediate gratification.

“Conservatives sense a link between television and drugs,” wrote Lasch, “but they do not grasp the nature of this connection any more than they grasp the important fact about news: that it represents another form of advertising, not liberal propaganda … The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction. Drugs are merely the most obvious form of addiction in our society.  It is true that drug addiction is one of the things that undermines ‘traditional values,’ but the need for drugs — that is, for commodities that alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and excitement — grows out of the very nature of a consumerist economy.”

There’s a saying in the recovery community that addiction turns good people into bad people, and therein lays the connection to the “loss of ethical and spiritual values.” For an addict, desire comes to be experienced as need, and that need eventually overwhelms even the most deeply embedded moral and spiritual values. The addict inhabits a socially fragmented world; he experiences a profound psychological alienation and even loss of identity. Petty moral transgressions become conceivable, even desirable, and ever easier to commit. The deeper his addiction, the more isolated he becomes, until all social connections formerly based on affection or conviction either dissolve or are redefined solely on the basis of utility. Shocking violations of the moral code, including violence, become not just possible, but likely. The addict is a one-dimensional being without a past, future, or even a present beyond the rock in his pipe, the bottle in his hand, or the needle in his arm.

Is it any coincidence that the same existential trajectory has often been ascribed to consumer society as a whole? Like addicts, consumers experience wants as needs, often superior to their obligations. The consumer’s world is likewise fragmented, his social connections also based largely on utility, defined as the satisfaction of desire: “What’s in it for me?” He too spurns family, place, and culture (the past), as well as education and civic engagement (the future), in favor of instant material gratification. And he, like the addict, often indulges in the most egregious violations of the moral law in the name of “freedom” or “choice,” including the dismemberment of unborn children.

Alcohol and drugs have been around since the dawn of time, of course, and many human cultures were built around the convivial cup or the proffered pipe, but substance abuse at the scale we confront today was not so common. It signifies a profound social crisis, an alienation of people from each other and from their own true selves. “People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull,” wrote the poet and essayist Wendell Berry in The Art of the Commonplace. “They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies, drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”

In his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Blessed Pope John Paul II confronted the consumer society directly:

“A disconcerting conclusion about the most recent period should serve to enlighten us: side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned, with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism,’ which involves so much ‘throwing-away’ and ‘waste.’ An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.

“All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns — unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products — that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”

On the surface, the addict — like the consumer — appears to always want more. In truth, what he really wants is different: a place in the world, productive work, an identity rooted in being and not in not having, and an authentic human community marked by affection and gratitude. Sadly, the society we’ve built has conspired to deprive us all of these things, but there is hope. Recovery is possible if we take it one day at a time.

Mark Gordonis a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 30 years and they have two adult children.

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