In a recent essay, I discussed the fundamental role despair has played in the opioid crisis. Further that the horrifying and climbing number of opioid deaths is part of a larger phenomenon of deaths of despair – drug overdose, alcoholism, suicide – that began at the millennium, reversing a decades long trend of increasing longevity. Finally, that these deaths of despair have disproportionately stricken young to middle-aged, unemployed, non-college graduate whites.
One might argue that these statistics suggest that this despair primarily is a result of material want. Yet that proposition ignores the fact that, in the annals of human history, contemporary Americans live in relative super abundance. This is not to say there are not some who struggle with the basics of necessity, but most living in poverty have adequate food, clothing, and shelter. Furthermore, poor Americans benefit from hygiene and healthcare advances, and own conveniences, e.g. heating, air conditioning, cell phones, appliances, automobiles, entertainment, etc. not only unavailable but truly unimaginable to the wealthiest of a hundred years ago.
One might also argue that if we had a better education system and a stronger economy so that more people were working and self-sufficient, all would be well with our society. There is no doubt that the dignity and satisfaction of self-direction and self-sufficiency are important components to an individual’s happiness; however, frank observation of contemporary educated, working, and relatively affluent America demonstrates all is not well.
A Journal of the American Medical Association study found that 16.7% (20.8% of white adults) of 242 million U.S. adults – reported filling one or more prescriptions for psychiatric drugs in 2013. The majority of these were anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medications. Teenagers too are struggling with increased rates of major depression episodes for adolescents over the last 10 years. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for those aged 15 to 19 years. How can it be that the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and suicide among all ages and socioeconomic groups is increasing despite that, from a material perspective, there has never been a better time or place to be alive than now in America?
The answer is clear, we – humans – are more than just physical bodies that can find fulfillment in material and carnal satisfaction. It is not that the material world is evil; in fact, it is very good. The problem lies in our society’s no longer recognizing the essential sanctity of our lives and of the material world around us. Our country’s foundational Judeo-Christian worldview has been replaced by the falsehood of secularism.
Progressive secularism contends that there is no Creator, creatures, or creation; rather that life and the physical world are the result of a random cosmic accident. Progressive secularism contends that there is no objective right or wrong, rather that morality is relative and adjustable as needed to achieve an ever evolving intellection conception of perfect humanity. At the most fundamental level, progressive morality turns upside-down the Judeo-Christian tenet that the ends never justify the means. For progressives, the ends always justify the means.
Progressive morality has particularly attacked traditional Judeo-Christian understanding on marriage, fidelity, and sexuality. How’s that progressive preaching on sexual freedom based in self rather than in commitment to the other, working out for adults’ happiness or for adolescent happiness. Is the end of the progressive obsession with sexual freedom to promote adult, or for that matter, teenager personal fulfillment? No – the objective of this and the whole of progressive “enlightened” morality is it to undermine and obscure the reality of Judeo-Christian worldview, particularly the Judeo-Christian understanding of the objective nature of right and wrong.
This attack is squarely aimed at our country’s foundational principle – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” If there is no Creator, then there are no bestowed “unalienable” individual rights. If there is no Creator, the state legitimizes its claim as the arbiter and giver of rights. The sovereignty and sanctity of the individual is subordinated to the collective good; and that good is determined by the intelligentsia who control the levers of power of the state.
Even though politically progressive policies are winning the day as manifested in the ever growing welfare state, secularism is a deceit. And that deceit is evident in the destructive wake created by progressive economic and social policies: Dismal economic growth; erosion of family and civil society; envy, hatred, and violence engendered by class and identity politics; and the spiritual want and anxiety fostered by the materialistic ends of secularism. Secularism doesn’t work because it is a lie.
The Truth can be suppressed and obscured but it cannot be destroyed because it is the Truth. It is reality. The Truth of our divine nature is evident in our intrinsic appreciation of the sublime – beauty, goodness, and love. It is evident in our intrinsic appreciation of virtue – humility, courage, compassion, and fidelity. It is evident in our intrinsic revulsion of hate, violence, and evil. It is evident in the pangs of conscience we all feel when we do wrong. We innately understand these things because we are created in the image and likeness of God. God’s law is written on our hearts. God’s Commandments are not arbitrary rules but rather instruction inherent to our nature to live a genuine and joyful life.
It is not that we must be faithful – it is easy to confess faith, but much harder to act faithfully – preferring my own will to what is ought. Rather, we must acknowledge that there is objective Truth and that the Truth sanctifies our lives and world, and that we should strive to conform our lives and world to the Truth.
Which brings us back to the despair of our times. It is despair born of a spiritual hunger because we are creatures who cannot live on bread alone. That hunger is real and debilitating for all, but its particularly immediate and evident for those dependent and trapped in poverty, poorly educated, and bereft of vital family and civil society support. It is these disaffected persons who have been disproportionally stricken by the opioid deaths and other deaths of despair.
There is no earthly utopia. However, society acknowledging the truths of individual freedom, the essential holiness of life and of the material world, and the objective nature of right and wrong would be authentic, and undoubtedly more prosperous and content. Not a life without trials, tribulations, or even for some, much misery; but a life where that focus of joy – knowing that we are the beloved of our Creator, and that this worldly life is not the end but the beginning – can never be taken away from us.