Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Opposite Of Addiction

Not long ago, I cited research that raises compelling questions over the "common knowledge" about addiction. These studies suggest that addiction likely has more to do with the environment in which we live, our "cages," rather than something inherent in addicts (e.g., moral failings, addictive personalities) or the "addictive" substances themselves. It's a controversial idea, especially here in the US where the 12-step model (via Alcoholics Anonymous) is considered the gold standard, but other countries, notably in Europe, are finding greater success by using approaches that acknowledge, as the research shows, that the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, it's human connection.

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled "German Kindergartens Ban Toys to Curb Future Addiction." The idea is that by removing toys young children between the ages of 3 to 6 will be motivated to learn to connect with other children rather than to simply sooth themselves with toys:

"Without any toys, children have the time to develop their own ideas," said Elisabeth Seifert, the managing director of Aktion Jugendshutz, a Munich-based youth nonprofit that promotes this project. "In toy-free time, they don't play with finished toys. They develop their own games. They play more together, so they can better develop psychosocial competencies."

It's an idea that is worth considering and while there is evidence, both anecdotal and empirical, that there are benefits in the short term, we have no idea whether or not it works in the long run, especially when it comes to preventing addiction. I'm inclined to a belief that fewer of what I call "scripted toys" would be a boon to children, and for me the short term impact of increased social interaction, creativity, empathy, and communication skills is good enough, but I'm skeptical about it's influence on adult addiction, at least when it come to children in the US.

Indeed, I'm not even sure that what we call addiction is a problem, or at least the problem. It's a symptom for sure, but until we fix society, until we fix the cage in which we live, a high level of addiction will be a fact of American life. In fact, one could argue that addiction is a kind of solution to a culture in which we tend to blame the victims. From Henry Rollins (formerly of the seminal punk act Black Flag) writing in LA Weekly:

There is no existential threat to America that rivals what America inflicts upon itself. Centuries of this is one of the reasons Americans are such rugged individuals. I say this with no irony. I have been all over the world and have witnessed some rough scenes, but . . . America is still one of the harshest places I have ever been to. For a large fraction of the American population, this country is a coast-to-coast school of hard knocks and sucker punches. It has always been this way, and that's one of the reasons why "Obamacare" was met with such opposition. The Affordable Care Act, like the president, threatened too many long-standing ways of the road . . . The new bill, a version of which could very likely become law, will be back to business as usual. The "safety net" is more pretty talk than anything else. The real safety net is drugs, tobacco, alcohol, cheap food, free porn and other ways to cheaply distract oneself from the pain . . . There's no safety in any of it, just something to get you through for a little while.

Having lived in German for a number of years, a place where they have a real social safety net, one that guarantees its citizens the essentials of food, clothing, shelter, and medical care, where the poor, sick, elderly, and young are not punished simply for being poor, sick, elderly or young, I can imagine that their kindergarten experiment might well work to curb addiction, but here in America? No way, at least not until we fix the cage in which we live. Rollins is spot on, even if, unlike him, I blame Democrats equally with Republicans. We offer the most inadequate safety net in the civilized world, then condemn those who fashion their own from drugs, tobacco, alcohol, cheap food and free porn. For too many Americans, addiction is not a problem, but rather a solution, and in many ways it's the only one we as a nation offer.

I know this sounds like a harsh assessment, but we live in a harsh culture, one that is becoming increasingly so. We will not solve the problem of addiction through our children any more than we will solve poverty, sexism, or racism through them. We, the adults, not the kids, created the cages in which we live and to think that we can change them, or be rid of them, simply by the way we teach children is just more pretty talk designed to distract us from the pain.

No, if we are serious about solving these big problems we must start with ourselves, not with the kids, whose job is not to change the world, but rather to make sense of it. If things are to get better, if we are going to break out of our cages, we must be the ones to first put away the toys that we use to distract ourselves and make a conscious effort, daily, hourly, to connect with our fellow humans, to look them in the eye, to listen to them, to understand them, to play with them. Until we are ready to take out the earbuds, turn off our screens, and get out of our cars, the cage in which we are raising our children will remain one of hard knocks and sucker punches.

Why not start today? Leave the seat next to you on the bus empty and strike up a conversation with the stranger who sits there. Take a plate of cookies to your neighbor. Come out from behind Facebook and actually follow through with that coffee date you've been promising an old friend. This is how we do it, without toys, but with one another. We are all addicts and the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety, it's connection.

(I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!)

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