The opioid epidemic indicates an American spiritual crisis
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This Sunday will commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson, a man taken well before his time. Whenever I think of Michael I cannot do so without conjuring the tragedy of opioid addiction and the innocent lives caught in its terrible web.

America is suffering from an “total epidemic,” in the words of President TrumpDonald John Trump Former US ambassador: 'Denmark is not a big fan of Donald Trump and his politics' Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill Detroit county sheriff endorses Booker for president MORE. But unlike previous epidemics, this outbreak of disease was not caused by a foreign bacteria or malignant virus. This one we have brought upon ourselves. Americans have become addicted in record number to opium-based painkillers, best known as opioids.

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According to a preliminary report released by The New York Times, drug-overdose deaths most likely exceeded 59,000 in 2016, and may be as high as 65,000. In 2015, that number was only 52,404, making this a 19 percent rise in a single year —  the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States. Drug overdoses have, shockingly, become the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. Worst of all, all evidence suggests that things have only gotten worse in 2017. In other words, we’re predicting yet another massive, tragic leap in the number of drug-induced deaths. 

 

This didn't arise from nowhere. According to 2015 survey done by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), over 119 million Americans aged 12 and overused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs, such as Prozac, Zoloft, and most popular of all, Xanax. When it comes to pain-relief drugs, over 2 million Americans are estimated to be dependent on opioids, while an additional 95 million use prescription painkillers. Those numbers make opioids more popular than tobacco. 

It’s gotten so bad that last May President Trump appointed members to a special commission aimed entirely at tackling this new medication plague. At the helm of this task-force is my friend and governor of my home state of New Jersey, Chris Christie. He was given 90 days to produce a preliminary plan for tackling the situation and has until Oct. 1 for a final version.

In all likelihood, this report will detail some important legal and technical steps for drawing down the numbers of those addicted. So far, many in the public sphere are suggesting such solutions as background checks before the prescription of opioids as well as an increase in research-funding for safer pain-relief alternatives. 

Sadly, none of these government funds or regulations will really resolve the issue. The problem, after all, is far deeper. Instead of asking how people are getting addicted and what can be done to stop them, we need to ask why people are turning to the mind-numbing effects of opioids and what we could do to help them.

There has to be a reason why such record-numbers of Americans are finding a last resort in opium-based painkillers, heroin, and its many illegally produced analogues, some of which are 5,000 times stronger than heroin itself.

Americans aren't on these drugs just to ameliorate a physical pain. Rather, people are experiencing a deeper, more fundamental emptiness of the soul. And it’s from this chasm that opioids offer an escape.

Ours is a society that has raised material prosperity to the zenith of national aspirations. Kids face unrelenting pressure to get A’s in high-school in the hopes that they can get into the Ivy Leagues, and from there into a top-level firm, and from there into a sports car on the way to their vacation home. You can change the specifics of those examples. Maybe they need to make the sports team in high school or have their music top the charts. But the theme remains the same. When it comes to the pressure of success, we all feel the heat.

And so, we commit our lives to an eternal pursuit of the most fleeting dreams of money, status, and renown — in its many varying yet identical forms. 

There’s also a reason why this is all happening now. Long ago, people found purpose in their responsibilities. They lived for their spouses, to whom they sought to bring feelings of preciousness and love. They toiled for their children, whom they struggled not just to support, but to show constant affection, giving them a sense of self worth. People were also more spiritual, and in a treasured connection to God they found a sense of purpose that gave context to their existence. Often, they also fought for a cause, be it their communities, their countries, and their values. And it was in this fulfillment of a purpose that people got high. It was in causes that were larger than themselves that they found an escape from the ordinary and mundane.

In the modern world, however, personal success has the ultimate cause.  

Material success trumps all other aspirations. Every magazine and television program features only the wealthiest, the smartest, the funniest, the richest, and the impossibly beautiful. All of this, of course, only serves as the most disheartening contrast with our image of ourselves. The programs and personalities might change, but the message is always the same: you are not enough. 

Thus, we so often feel let down by life and failed by our very selves — a most acute and aching pain. It is, therefore, no wonder that in a culture like ours, Americans are running in the millions to quell their hearts and numb their minds by doing what is as easy as swallowing a circular pill the size of of a Skittle.

I spent last weekend as a scholar-in-residence with the Chabad Jewish Center in Aspen, Colorado. I met many people who applauded the state’s legalization of marijuana. One after the other, they all said that same phrase: “It just takes the edge off of things.” And that’s what struck me. Where did this universal ‘edge’ suddenly come from? Most of these people were in their teens, twenties, and thirties. At that age, many were free of any familial obligations, significant financial pressures, and were at the height of their energy and faced endless prospects. What could possibly be making them so much pressure?

And then I remembered. These young people were facing the same pressures I faced at their age and continue to face until today. That we need to ace the performance of life, and rise to the top of our spheres. That we aren’t good enough, but must by the love of God get better, richer, thinner, funnier, better-dressed, and endlessly more accomplished. 

When Donald Trump won this election, he did so by seeing through the cloud of myriad messages that could be parlayed for a win of the presidency, and by focusing primarily on one. Trump sought, by and large, to show people that they were not forgotten. He knew that even in politics, people were all feeling that same pain: that unlike bankers, oil-executives, and celebrities, they hadn't amounted to anything rich or special enough to show up on the radar-screen of a presidential candidate. Then Trump came along and said what we’ve all been waiting to hear. That we weren’t forgotten. That we were not invisible. That we, in fact, actually mattered. 

It makes no difference if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, whether you love Trump of consider him the anti-Christ. His message that the forgotten man is forgotten no more resonated so strongly that it won him an impossibly difficult election. People want to feel that they matter. 

But the message of innate human significance is not primarily a political but is rather a deeply spiritual message. As a nation we need to make a changes in our values and find a sense of self worth in the timeless tasks of building a family, supporting our communities, connecting with the spiritual, and living a righteous life.

With drug-addiction numbers on so terrifyingly steep a rise, the time for change is now.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, "America's Rabbi," whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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