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October 31, 2017 5:09 pm

American Soullessness and the Opioid Epidemic

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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President Donald Trump hosts an Opioid and Drug Abuse Listening Session at the White House, March 2017. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Citing his own family’s struggles with addiction, President Donald Trump last week movingly declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.

As the president of the United States, Trump will battle addiction with the swords at his disposal. He will announce federal funding, prescription regulations and initiatives to develop non-addictive alternatives.

Americans must, however, supplement these steps with an evaluation of our national soul, so as to understand the sullenness that drives records numbers of Americans to addiction and even death.

America must reflect. And so, let us offer this reflection.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence — the very foundation for our option to exist — he listed three “unalienable rights” that America would provide to its citizens. Familiar to any child, they have achieved unparalleled fame:

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The first two, for the most part, have been largely obtained by America since its founding. At least, we’ve come a long way. With regard to happiness, though, we have been far less — if at all — successful.

Sadness, anxiety and depression have long been on the rise in the United States. The rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400% in the past thirty years. This rise is evident even amongst our children. The number of children aged 12-17 who have experienced major forms of depression has risen by 37% in the past decade alone. It’s far worse for girls, among whom one in five have experienced at least one major depressive episode (defined as one lasting over two weeks) in just the last year. 

In line with our decline in happiness is the surge in our dependence on pharmaceuticals. Over 119 million Americans aged twelve and over used prescription psychotherapeutic drugs — such as Prozac, Zoloft and, most popular of all, Xanax. Opioids have become more popular than tobacco, with over 95 million Americans using prescription painkillers. Two million have become addicted — hence, the term “epidemic.” Drug overdoses have become the leading cause of death among Americans under fifty and are rising at a staggering rate — 19% between 2015 and 2016. Sadly, none of these statistics show the slightest sign of abating, and most are expected to worsen. Taken together, they point to one unavoidable fact:  

In the United States of America, happiness is as elusive as ever. 

Sure, weve pursued it. Weve achieved historically unprecedented success, wealth and power. In the past half-century alone, the American income has tripled. The standard of living, life expectancy, and the opportunities available to most Americans are better than they’ve ever been before. How, then, could we be so profoundly unhappy? 

Perhaps, we must posit, it is the very pursuit of happiness that is to blame. 

When America was founded, we rid ourselves of the European noble-birth model in favor of a system based on merit. Suddenly, the common man had a chance at greatness. And with the gates of our potential now open before us, we would dedicate our lives to the endless pursuit of success. And it is in that dire chase that I believe our problem lies. 

It is said that trying to be happy is akin to trying to fall asleep. The harder you try, the harder it becomes. Happiness, like sleep, cannot be caught. Nor can it be bought. Happiness, put simply, is not a product, a goal, or a destination. 

On the contrary, happiness is the by-product of a life filled with meaning. And it is the meaningful aspects of our lives — such as family, faith and community — that we have allowed to become eclipsed. With good reason; this shallow-take of success is all we ever see. 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 own self-image, which we try obsessively to augment. 

It is, however, a grave mistake. None of these passing joys, be it the numbness of a drug or the cashing of a check, will truly bring us happiness. On the contrary, it is the long slogs of marriage, parenthood and community service that will truly do the trick, as will the difficult steps of charity, prayer, and random acts of kindness. It’s hard to see how these can make a person happy, but that’s precisely the point. Happiness hangs hidden in the air about the life of meaning. Like air, it cannot be held, but only noticed. We need only go toward the place of purpose where those airs abound — whether it be in playing with our children, contemplating our lives in a house of worship or lending help to a stranger in need. 

We must now, like our forefathers before us, affirm our own independence. Not an independence from a foreign crown, but from the foreign drags of insecurity and self-loathing, and all the endless voyages they commission toward the mythical lands of success.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the only rabbi to have won the London Times Preacher of the Year competition and is the international best-selling author of 30 books. His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

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