The Lure of Contentment

Drugs make contentment seem achievable and enduring.

Posted Jun 05, 2018

Of all the mainstream American cultural features that foster substance abuse, including the sense that only a sissy turns down a drink, the sense that getting high—no matter how commonplace—is exceptional and extraordinary, or the sense that life is a videogame with do-overs and resets (that turn out not to be available after all), perhaps the most insidious is the lure of contentment. Humans have always dreamed of capturing and extending those moments (Goethe’s “so fair thou art, abide”) when all the plates seem to be spinning, the kids are safe and occupied, the workday is over, and no physical pain intrudes. Those dreams are depicted in our Edenic prehistory and in our heavenly post-history. It’s easy to see how such fantasies became linked to substances, since the latter ease intrusive physical pain and facilitate the ignoring of a few wobbly plates or remaining items in the inbox. But the dream of paradise was meant to motivate us, not to consume us.

Only recently in human history has contentment seemed possible. Electricity, technology, and post-modernism combine to create a sense that everything can be easy and that discordant information can be ignored. The lure of contentment facilitates drug use, because it means that competing values aren’t operating to interfere with drug use. These competing values might include honor, dignity, industry, social justice, truth-seeking, achievement, self-expression, aesthetics, justice, or conflict resolution. In the past, these and other values intruded on the bliss associated with drug use; a stupor was less blissful when it meant neglect of other values. When we constantly compliment children and students, we inadvertently communicate that growth, honor, and so on are less important than the feeling of contentment. Actual efforts to grow, to learn, and to improve oneself interfere with contentment, since their pursuit means that things are not perfect as they are. Tennyson could write in The Lotus Eaters, “Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil,” counting on the reader to know he meant the opposite. By the time The Matrix was filmed, it wasn’t clear whether the populace would prefer the red pill that wakes you up or the blue one that maintains lotus-like illusions.

The apparent availability of contentment has made us testy about irksome information, which the Right dismisses as fake news and the Left dismisses as alternate realities. It makes us congregate with like-minded people and makes us intolerant of disputation. It devalues all other values, since all other values require discontent as a spur to action. It makes us susceptible to anodynes and palliatives, to hallucinogens that allow us to trip without leaving home and to stimulants that provide excitement without having to do anything exciting.

Using the term contentment for this innocuous-seeming but undermining goal harnesses that word’s bovine associations. It is not human nature to be content; it is human nature to dream of contentment. Many Americans act as if they are guaranteed happiness rather than the right to pursue it. Once you think you have a right to happiness, intrusions are seen as annoyances rather than as opportunities. Life becomes an intrusion that can be avoided with videogames, social media, and drugs, prescribed or otherwise.

A better goal in life than contentment is Taoism’s “wu wei,” meaning literally non-action but something akin to Hegel’s absorption, Dewey’s experience, Goffman’s engrossment, or Csíkszentmihályi’s flow. Getting there is more important than arriving; drugs can get you there, but without the benefits or joys of the journey. Various techniques suggested over the centuries have much to do with getting over yourself and responding to what’s around you. Chuang-tzu’s example is the cook who never needs to sharpen his blade because he never strikes a bone; he carves the ox not according to a model of oxen but instead he lets the actual ox on the table control and guide the blade. Thus, any verbal guide to richer values is bound to be of limited utility, but Taoism offers us “wu yu” as a start. This means non-being, a suggestion that we allow ourselves to be egoless in our behavior, less full of ourselves. My wife thinks the key is “woo woo,” which combines sexual pleasure, departing trains, and celebration. I am suggesting the application of “wu moo,” which stands for accepting one’s humanity and not acting like a cow.

This post was recently published in The Colorado Psychologist.

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