It’s been hard lately to make pastoral or theological sense of many things. I don’t think I’m alone in hitting the creativity wall. I often feel stalled, wondering how to push through, or why to push through, towards generativity.
Hitting this wall keeps me thinking about Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
The book is mostly a history of the conservative culture war waged against psychedelics. A problematic war, because we are now learning some of the psychedelics are helpful, not harmful, when taken at the right time and in the right context with the right support.
I confess to a lack of personal expertise in this area. I’ve never tried acid or mushrooms or marijuana, or any of the drugs. I’m so law abiding I didn’t really start drinking until I was 21, and then gave that up in my 30s because I’ve got an addictive personality and I’m better off sober, leaving coffee as my one vice.
However, just observing the shift from the psychedelic era to the opioid epidemic era, it seems there is much more going on than simple change in choice of drugs. Which drugs are done when and why matters, culturally, and probably also pastorally. As Bruce Rogers-Vaughn articulates in his book, Caring for Souls In A Neoliberal Age:
“It is my judgment,” the author declares, “that the primary challenge for pastoral care, psychotherapy, social activism, and other approaches to caring for souls today is not the effort to fix discrete personal problems or even to redress specific social injustices. It is, rather, to aid people, individually and collectively, in finding their footing–to articulate the deep meanings that ground their lives and to strengthen healthy collectives and social movements that hold some residue of transcendent values.”
The 60s were a counter-culture moment. Free your minds… So conservative forces used policing powers to squash the use of the drugs, criminalizing them and lumping them all together, as if mushrooms did the same thing to the brain as an acid trip.
I grew up between the psychedelic era and the opioid era, when the drugs seemed to be all about speed. Remember when Alex in Family Ties uses speed to get all his homework done and tests taken? Those seemed to me the drugs of my era, stuff to keep you going, like putting in a new battery.
We’ve now entered the era of the opioid crisis, and I’ve been wondering, why are we now all Dopesick? Well, it turns out neoliberalism always learns how to assimilate resistance of itself into itself. So, rather than fight the psychedelics (the one kind of drug that might have a moderate deterrence effect on the rise of neoliberalism), sell everyone a drug that just kills the pain.And the verdict is in: we’ve been sold.
“Between 1996 and 2000, the company more than doubled its U.S. marketing team…In 2001, Purdue paid forty million dollars in bonuses tied to extended-release oxycodone…Purdue also invested heavily in analytics, developing a database to identify high-volume prescribers and pharmacies to help focus their marketing resources…Patients were offered starter coupons for a free initial supply of extended-release oxycodone, 34,000 of which were redeemed by 2001…Finally, Purdue hosted forty all-expenses-paid pain management and speaker training conferences at lavish resorts. Over five thousand clinicians attended, receiving toys, fishing hats, and compact discs while listening to sales representatives tout the alleged benefits of extended-release oxycodone…Purdue elevated the stakes, spending an estimated six to twelve times more promoting extended-release oxycodone than its competitor Janssen spent marketing a rival opioid…” (from The Opioid Epidemic: Fixing a Broken Pharmaceutical Market)
I’m thinking of Jesus here, over-turning the money-changing tables in the temple. In this case, it’s Big Pharma, selling us all the little pills that are the modern day equivalent of the temple sacrifice. And it turns out not only are they price-gouging, they’re even creating the very addiction they hope to profit from.
And then system wide, above and beyond Big Pharma, you have news, like the warnings about the very real and potential end of everything as we know it (due to climate change), and you can see why culturally we might just all check out and use the drugs.
Of course, there is a better option. Rather than numbing ourselves, we could just eat less meat.
When the kings of Israel were warned of what was coming, often they were complacent (like Zedekiah) saying, “Well, at least it won’t happen while I rule.” I’m afraid our own complacency around climate change is of this sort… in the end we don’t have the will to make the changes, and can simply wait for all the effects to happen to the next generation.
And use all methods of numbing ourselves in the meantime. Of course, there’s not a direct correlation here, no specific person addicted to oxycontin is necessarily doing it to numb themselves in the face of the pains of neoliberalism. But we are seeing the widespread effect. And then we turn around and blame everyone who became addicted to the prescribed medication, when it was prescribed, and the marketing was designed to get them addicted.