Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Human Face of Addiction

Apartment building with a growing tree on its roof

Last week I had the opportunity to witness a panel discussion on the issue of addiction at St. Paul's Hospital. I was moderately interested in the topic of addiction, but went because it included heavyweights in the field, particularly Alfried Laengle whom I had seen previously expound on logotherapy and whom I personally consider the Dalai Lama of psychotherapy as well as Gabor Mate who is a bestselling author and the equivalent of a medical superstar. Some of Mate's articles I had read online, and I had been impressed by its humanity as well as gutsiness. Finally, there was also Bruce Alexander whom I had not heard about but who proved also quite knowledgeable and who showed serious concern for the environment in both senses of the word, physical surrounding as well as nature.

And so the discussion commenced ten minutes later than planned in front of a filled auditorium with constant heavy rain outside. Laengle opened up the panel by his definition of addiction, and I was already baffled. He started off showing us that addiction is indeed a very human activity. To be addicted means to be human, to have desires and to look for their fulfillment. Everyone is addicted to something to some extent. There is essentially nothing wrong with it except when it is done specifically to fill a certain void or used as an escape that eventually causes more harm than good. Immediately, we could feel the warmth and humanity of his view and his focus on existential matters.

Then Mate picked up where Laengle had left off yet with a caveat. He mainly agreed with Laengle's definition, and he pointed out that most of us are addicted to something or some kinds of repetitive and addictive behavior for different reasons, namely to get a sense of calm, relief, assurance or what-have-you. 

Yet the issue is whether we do it to escape alienation. In modern times we have more than ever cases of addiction, but historically there were phases where and when addiction was not a major issue or not much of a problem. It was Bruce Alexander who would elaborate more on this phenomenon and the external influences on addiction.

In the meantime, the main disagreement of Mate was that addiction was according to the actual meaning of the word, a type of slavery. People become enslaved to something and find it very hard to control. They become automatons, thoughtless machines that only exist to gratify those needs and pleasures. 

Mate read a quote from Victor Frankl's book, Laengle's teacher and mentor on how there is the stimulus and a response and that the gap in-between is what is called free will, reason or an operating agent / ego. Although most of us most of the time do respond to situations via reflection, in the case of addicts that response is immediate (he snapped his fingers at this point) and does not include any type of will or decision on the part of the subject.

This observation was the main source of conflict or rather disagreement between Laengle and Mate. Laengle insisted that we still do have an albeit at times feeble voice of reason between the stimulus and response among addicts. The idea or goal of therapy would be to give empowerment and strength to that voice so that the afflicted addict can gradually break the habit and manage to break free from those shackles.

In fact, in most cases people do not become addicted right away, but it builds up perhaps with a drink or two leading to increased amounts over time. At all times, there is a decision, a voice saying yes (or no) to certain actions; rarely is there an automatic reaction from the onset. It is more a case of losing control than a complete loss of control.

There were some interesting observations about genetic as well as environmental factors that were brought up as well. Certainly some have genetic predispositions, but most of the addicts have had some kind of trauma in their past leading them towards addictive behaviors. In Laengle's words this was trauma that has not been integrated creating the need for escape by various means. Mate pointed out that most of the addicts had experienced sexual abuse.

But one of the main conflicts of the night was whether addicts do have a still operating will or decision-making process. The danger or downside of such a view was according to Mate that people could accuse the addict of somehow or other being responsible for their addiction. 

That is when the white-haired Austrian Laengle with the calm and soothing voice surprised me. Laengle said if people were to construe his words in this manner, he would drop his perspective and theory altogether. To blame the addicts for their plight was definitely not his intended meaning; in fact, he meant the exact opposite. Here we see his humanitarian concern over simply being right and that he was even ready to sacrifice his own views for the benefit of others.

At that point, it seemed that the outspoken Mate had won the debate. But Laengle would still not leave without a fight. Mate had challenged him to give a definition of free will. Laengle gave the fact that despite constraints and strong forces from both within and without, there was a singular and personal voice regarding that situation. And yet, there were people who did not want to leave their addiction and that was fine. He had one particular patient who would see him on a regular basis saying that he did not want to drop his addiction.

Mate asked him why was that man going to see a psychotherapist in the first place. To that Laengle responded that it was because that person enjoyed the human contact, the fact that he could reach out to another person, a human being who did not immediately judge or scold him for his actions.

Laengle also said that if people followed their addictive behavior with mindfulness, then it was not as bad. For example, if a smoker enjoys their cigarettes, this is all right. It should not become a mere and thoughtless habit. People should be and become aware of their actions, and only if they sincerely and genuinely wish to quit their addiction, should they do so.

Then Mate argued what about people with obsessive-compulsive behavior. They would rather not choose to wash their hands a hundred times before leaving the building. Laengle responded by saying that unhealthy habits would manifest themselves in different ways in different people. Since the person feels isolation and a certain perceived lack of power in situations, they would either seek an escape through addiction or their body would respond with different defense mechanisms to stressors, such as diseases like cancer or mental health issues like depression or at its worst even suicide.

In fact, the word dis-ease shows that the body and/or mind are not at ease, not balanced and that it is in many cases simply a natural response of the body. Such undigested traumas would also lead towards aggressive and dangerous behaviors both towards others as well as oneself. 

At one point, psychotherapist Laengle was in fact counseling Mate, and it was then that Mate shifted his position and conceded that there was a miniscule moment or gap between the stimulus and the response. So Laengle eventually won the debate and claimed that he did not know that Mate was an existentialist to which Mate shrugged and said "whatever that means."

Now I have left out an important voice here, the thoughts and ideas of Bruce Alexander. Although he was not as forceful in his opinions or in this discussion, he had indeed important and significant views on addiction and moreover our modern and alienated life-styles. 

At one point, Alexander said he was not going to blame all the pain and isolation on capitalism (to which Laengle retorted why not, which drew an impromptu applause from the audience). Yet it is capitalism that often creates gaps between people and has more often than not harmful effects on social and personal relationships.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of native people. Historically, they did not have problems or issues with addiction, but in modern times they have been feeling isolated from both their culture as well as the rest of society. Also turning people into money-making economic units causes conflicts in the fabric of relationships. As Mate claimed in places like Turkey, people did not merely go to stores to buy things and return home; instead they were often offered tea or coffee in the neighborhood stores.

In fact, neighborhood stores, which are a source of meeting and greeting people within the community have become more a thing of the past due to big impersonal superstores like Wal-Mart. We have lost touch with personalized service and instead are dealing with mass-produced commercial items for mass consumers like us. Mate also noted with regret that Fisher Price was selling car seats for one-year-olds that came integrated with an iPad holder. People are becoming and have become enslaved to technology at the expense of relationships with nature and with real people.

On the issue of nature, Bruce Alexander had more to say. We exploit nature, but it is us who have become impoverished as a result. We have lost touch with our core and principal values and live in a materialistic world filled with voids. We have become globalized and are dealing with significant amounts of anxiety and depression. All of this has not made our life more convenient or happy, but quite to the contrary. It comes as no surprise that substance abuse has increased in addition to health issues, both physical as well as mental.

Life is filled with pain, and we have to find our way through it without getting too bruised and damaged by it. This may sound rather pessimistic, but the hope is that we can manage to have healthier lives if we face ourselves and the issues that confront us head-on. Even when situations seem hopeless and there is no way out, there is a small ray of hope that can get us out of the prison we have essentially created (for) ourselves.

In some cases, psychotherapy can help us, but generally it is both about accepting oneself in one's precious and invaluable uniqueness and accepting and caring about others around us. Once we realize that it was merely our own faulty perception or illusion that we have a void within us and that in fact, we have and always had what we needed most at our own hands and disposal, then issues like addiction or diseases may become easier to control and deal with.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fate and Destiny in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire

Questions on fate and love
The movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by British director Danny Boyle has achieved that rare feat of satisfying film critics and audiences alike. It is one of the best works of this very talented director. However, upon my first viewing, I was not as enthusiastic about the film. I had been somewhat impressed with it in terms of editing and its magnificent energy boosted by a great soundtrack, but I had erroneously dismissed it as another successful crowd-pleaser. I had brushed it off as light entertainment and did not fully understand the critical hype around this film, which included winning an outstanding eight Oscars (incidentally more than one of my all-time favorite films, the brilliant classic Lawrence of Arabia made by David Lean in 1962).

So what made me change my mind about Slumdog Millionaire? I think although the movie does well on a number of levels and layers, I had not fully appreciated the intricacy of its script, that is, its philosophical premise and weight. It had struck me as a fairy tale albeit interspersed with moments of unflinching but restrained brutality involving torture and other traumatic experiences. To my defense, this movie is such a genre bender -- drama, action, romance, you name it -- and has a lot of glitz and dazzle so that one can miss out on how intricate the philosophical message is.

First off, this movie is rare in the sense that it is spoiler-proof. I cannot really give away anything here. While the ending may be predictable, it is still poignant; in fact, I was even more moved the second time around than when I first saw this gem.

Basically the main premise is this: A young man Jamal who has suffered a great deal in life enters the Indian version of the “Who wants to be a millionaire” contest and somehow despite his lack of education knows all the correct answers. This arouses suspicion among the authorities, and the young man is accused of cheating.

But the key to his success lies in his past. It seems that all his life has oddly enough only served this main purpose, namely to prepare him for the show that would turn him into a millionaire. Boyle has made other movies that involved suddenly and surprisingly attaining loads of cash in both Shallow Grave (1994) and the surprisingly heartwarming, moving and funny Millions (2004), but in the case of Slumdog Millionaire the money is used as an excuse or mere pretext; it serves as the young man's desperate but determined plan and means of getting the girl of his dreams Latika.

Jamal's life story is told in flashbacks and in direct relation to the posed questions on the popular game show (the novel this movie is based on is entitled Q & A and makes this link somewhat clearer). For example, Jamal knows the name of an Indian movie star because he fought hard to get his autograph. Jamal's mean-spirited brother locked him inside an outhouse, but the resourceful boy manages to escape underneath and shows up all covered in feces (I read on IMDb it was actually peanut butter mixed with chocolate). So he eventually asks for the long-awaited and much desired autograph. From the beginning of his life, we can see he is determined and obstinate in getting what he wants.

More interestingly, he knows which US president is portrayed on the 100 dollar bill because of his own heartfelt and sincere generosity. Jamal gives money to a blind boy who tells him that it is Ben Franklin's face that can be found on the bill. Had Jamal not decided to give him the money, he would never have known the answer to that question. So in a way, it is pure karma that is preserved then and passed on. Our ethical and generous actions may not be immediately rewarded, but they will be in due time and course.

Although a lot of the answers to the questions bring up painful memories, including his mother's senseless and brutal slaughter during a religious riot, it seems that everything was predetermined, in other words, fate. I love the idea that everything that happens to us, no matter how good or bad serves a distinct and distinctive purpose. We may not see and understand it in the heat or burning suffering of the moment, but it seems part of a larger plan of the cosmos, the eventual fulfillment of the Logos.

It is this realization that made me embrace this film with my whole heart. It so happens that when two people find each other, in this case our star-crossed lovers Jamal and Latika, it was all meant to happen and every detail in the movie and in life in general may be nothing but a footnote towards this one moment of bliss. So it happens in romance when people meet their soul-mates sometimes seemingly against all odds.

But the overall outlook is not a mere waiting for good things to fall into your lap, but to always make it happen. There were many times where Jamal could have merely given up or taken the easy way out. But he did not. Even at the very last where he is unfairly tortured, he keeps holding onto his dreams, his driving force of hope.

And it seems that all this time, even if it seemed otherwise at certain desolate moments, fortune, or call it luck or destiny had always been smiling and winking at him. Hence the final embrace and yes even the dance number give us a warm tingling feeling that deep down regardless of its rough and tough surface everything is all right and immensely beautiful and simply divine.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Capitalism needs a Heart

Child with Guy Fawkes Mask

Normally, we do not link virtues like compassion and empathy with the notion of capitalism. It seems that within capitalism, there is not much room for benevolence, but capitalism has rather an ingrained and deeply embedded love and adoration for money, which is, in its extent and degree not unlike the awe and fascination with God when it comes to religion. The sheer existence and raison d'ĂȘtre of capitalism are the profits that are connected with it. Put differently, a capitalist who fails to make money is considered a loser, or worse, an utter failure.

That appears to be the root of most of the problems, and therein lies the root of evil essentially. It is not money itself, which is merely a tool and can be used for beneficial and compassionate purposes, but it is the undying love and reverence attached to it, which lurks its ugly head as corporate greed. Money becomes tainted and sullied with one's crass and grandiose ambitions, which often occur at the expense of one's own humanity.

To say that I do not appreciate, respect or even love money would be erroneous. To ask me -- or most of us -- to give it all away or to share it freely with others would be ranging from heroic deed to downright folly. Money especially if earned and accumulated by the sweat of the brow or by the works of wit and creativity is entirely a matter of entitlement.

However, my savings account pales in comparison with those who have more than million-fold their basic demands and necessities for various lifetimes down the road. My dream of one day owning four walls may merely remain that, namely a dream, but I would never dream of owning a yacht or my private jet. Now that to me seems outright folly.

Why you may ask. In the past, we have had millionaires or at the very top multi-millionaires. That seemed in itself quite a big deal, but now, even with inflation counted in, we have billionaires. This is an amount of money I cannot even imagine, let alone count or run through my hands. In fact, it is, by all means and standards, a ludicrous amount.

The question that I often ask myself is the following: How did these people become so filthy (to use a more benign f-word here) rich? In many cases, I am aware that it comes through hard work and perhaps with the right amount of luck, but still this must be someone's hard-earned money from somewhere. It is money tainted with sweat and worse, even blood.

It might be a factory worker working away all day for a fraction of a fraction, for a salary which may (or may not) help her to get by barely. These profits that show up on the rich person’s bank account may be a large chunk of someone's salary who is not starving but who has fallen into the consumerist trap of buying useless (and perhaps worthless) things to make him feel happy. That happiness literally comes at a cost and may only last for a little while, and it may give him something to brag about for a moment or two.

This is the situation and scenario in the most harmless or most ethical of cases. I will not go into cases where illegal or quasi-legal transactions or investments lead to (undeserved and unmerited) capitalist gain. Those are evidently seen as wrong, but our focus here is those legitimate businesses that squeeze profits by squeezing the general public's pockets.

This is how it is in the capitalist world; you may hear its proponents say. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The games and opportunities are open for anyone who takes a risk or who works hard enough. Even you can partake of the beautiful staple American dream if you only try hard (and long) enough.

But the game is rigged. The American dream is exactly that, namely a dream, if not a downright lie. In a capitalist system, there cannot be winners only. In a sport event it may be all about participating, but in capitalism the line is drawn quite clearly between the haves and the have-nots. You cannot have your cake and eat it too because the cake has already been eaten, including crumbs.

Here I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma. We could eradicate poverty in our city, country or even the world if those with more than nine figures to their name actually showed some heart. If they realized that money is not everything and that what they have gained through work or exploitation can be used for the benefit and happiness of others.

It angers me to see people not have enough, while others delve and swim in money substantially and significantly beyond their possible needs. Sure we could ask that everybody ought to give a hand to stop poverty or this type of injustice, but much more can be achieved by those who have more than necessary resources. If one day (and God bless the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who are showing at least some initiative in this direction) the wealthy said we have more than enough and let us give away a large sum of our money to help others from starving and from suffering in their daily life because those states and situations are simply wrong and unacceptable.

In fact, let us change policies that benefit us only (I am speaking for the rich or rather in the name of the wealthy hypothetically speaking) and let us allow or better let us put pressure on politicians to pass laws that do not merely benefit the rich but laws that are truly fair and equitable. Let us give instead of taking because we have already taken more than we can handle in a single lifetime.

Recently, I attended an interesting and moving (or downright depressing) talk that dealt with issues of poverty. In that case, the solution was seen as treating poverty as a disease and to show the government that prevention was the best method. The speaker Gary Bloch, being a doctor and an activist knew what he was talking about both because of his profession and experience with working with the poor in Canada. He and others that evening suggested and demonstrated that by investing into poverty reduction, everyone would benefit; it even made sense economically as the government (and hence taxpayers) would eventually save money down the road. 
Although it would be a noble aim to act as conscious and compassionate citizens, all in all, that would be the proverbial drop on a hot stone. Each of us has responsibilities to change things for the better, of course. We want to become more ethical, more aware, more socially and politically active.

But instead of a bottom-up approach, saving pennies and making small adjustments, if we could only reach the very top and touch the hearts of those who have enough resources to make or break whole nations, then we could make even bigger strides. Let us add compassion and heart into the equation of capitalism and let us peel away from it all that is bad and harmful. We do not want to be left with a gaping and open wound and abyss between the top 1% and all the rest of us significantly down below.