#23 – Our American Culture: An Addictive System

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.  –George Orwell

What if all Americans were born into a community of addicts? We would start life with two strikes against us.  In the American community with very few exceptions we are all addicts. And our addictions are killing us mentally, physically and most importantly our addictions are destroying the American psyche. We are allowing ourselves to become a soulless society. What is a soulless society? One with no capacity for deep feeling; one without compassion; one without an appreciation of the good, the true and the beautiful. What is causing this societal state of being and what can be done about it? If you are unwilling to confront the part you play in this tragedy you need read no further.

All of our Current Events have their origin in the broader American narrative or worldview. If our worldview is systemically addictive then our identity will be that of an addict and the expression of that identity will be primarily self-destructive. “Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.”  (1)  An addictive system limits the number of roles or identities that we may choose but ultimately gives most of us just one choice, the false self.  (See Current Event #8). This is currently and always has been the human condition in America.

Why is it important for each of us to cop to the role that we play in our community as it falls apart. “In her book Silences, Tillie Olsen points out how our refusal to speak our reality or name our experience makes us accomplices of a system that oppresses us.”  (2)  In short, we are the creators of the problem and are complicit in a crime of catastrophic dimensions.

“Take, for example, the opioid crisis, which we learn from a recent Washington Post article is a result of a corrupt system peopled with ‘rogue’ doctors and ‘complicit’ pharmacists.”  (3)  Most of us are not “rogue” doctors or “complicit” pharmacists so what is the problem? Glad you asked!

An addiction is any process (e.g. gambling) or substance (e.g. opioids) over which we are powerless. Ann Schaef, author of When Society Becomes An Addict (1987), defines addiction in behavioral terms. “It takes control of us, causing us to do and think things that are inconsistent with our personal values and leading us to become progressively more compulsive and obsessive. A sure sign of an addiction is the sudden need to deceive ourselves and others—to lie, deny, and cover up. An addiction is anything we feel tempted to lie about. An addiction is anything we are not willing to give up (we may not have to give it up [but] we must be willing to do so to be free of addiction).”  (2)

In an addictive system like our American society denial, lying and avoidance is itself epidemic. Vince Morber the police chief in Summit County, Ohio thinks pharmaceutical companies are being disingenuous. “They absolutely knew what they were doing: Their business practices, the way they did it, the way they marketed it.”  (4)

Where are the lawyers and politicians? Why not sue the drug companies? “Critics say the litigation is a sideshow in the opioid debate—a chance for lawyers to make money and politicians to make headlines—rather than a lasting solution in the overwhelming crisis, which the president’s Council of Economic Advisers last month [Nov. 2017] estimated as having cost $504 billion in 2015.”  (4)

Those with enough smarts to succeed in law school would be too intelligent to allow themselves to get snared by a drug dealer, right? Andy Benjamin, a psychologist and lawyer at the University of Washington also thought that at one time. “In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that. Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. ‘We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility.’”  (5)

We have learned that the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power is a source of suffering and drug addiction. Competition, status (power) and comparative worth (plenty) can also alter one’s identity. Will Miller, a lawyer and former meth addict said that law school encouraged students to take emotion out of their decisions. “‘When you start reinforcing that with grades and money, you aren’t just suppressing your emotions,’ he said. ‘You’re fundamentally changing who you are.’”  (5)

Defining worldview as a community’s beliefs, attitudes and values, we can all appreciate that a healthy community attitude would value service to others and a belief that a life based on the expression of compassion would be satisfying. Law school can be an environment where an addictive lifestyle can be reinforced. “Within the first year of law school, student’s motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from ‘helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.’”  (5)

We have limited our examples to the training of lawyers and the greed of “Big Pharma” but we would have found comparable behaviors looking at any American institution. Our worldview in America is an addictive system that sets us all up for addiction. (See Current Event #2.)

Many of us will experience despair when we learn that we have been born into a context which will virtually guarantee that we will have multiple addictions throughout our life. However, if we open our hearts and minds we can internalize an alternative narrative resulting in a healthy identity perfectly capable of transcending all addictions and the pain and suffering caused by them.

Insight # 23:  “An addiction keeps us unaware of what is going on inside us. We do not have to deal with our anger, pain, depression, confusion, or even our joy and love, because we do not feel them, or we feel them only vaguely.”  (2)


  • Refer to Addiction in The ABC’s of Simple Reality in print and on this blog, by Roy Charles Henry, 2018.


  1. Quinones, Sam. “A New Kind of Jail for the Opiate Age.” The New York Times. June 18, 2017, page 1.
  2. Schaef, Anne Wilson. When Society Becomes an Addict. New York: Harper, 1987, pages 10 and 18.
  3. Chocano, Carina. “Easy Going.” The New York Times Magazine. January 21, 2018, page 14.
  4. Smith, Mitch and Monica Davey. “With Overdoses on Rise, Cities and Counties Look for Someone to Blame.” The New York Times. December 22, 2017, page A15.
  5. Zimmerman, Eilene. “The Lawyer, The Addict.” The New York Times. July 16, 2017, page 5.