SOUTH India is full of snakes, and every year as I was growing up, when the earth grew warm after the monsoon rains, I used to marvel at the profusion of sloughed-off snakeskins scattered across our fields. ``Doesn't it hurt a snake to shed its skin like that?'' I once asked my grandmother. ``It has no choice,'' she replied. ``If it can't grow, it will strangle. The tightness of a skin that doesn't fit is a signal that it's time to slough off in order to grow.''
I remembered grandmother's words while pondering the Monitor series on the drug problem, the only treatment I have seen in the national media which points to the spiritual dimensions of this crisis.
What makes people turn to drugs like cocaine? The old answer, that drug users are those whom life has little to offer, no longer seems to fit. As Dr. Arnold Washton, a psychiatrist directing research for a national drug hot line, pointed out in a recent interview, the explosive spread of addictive drugs ``is not just a big inner-city problem. It's clear that crack is being used by both adults and adolescents, by blacks and whites, by poor and rich alike'' -- not only by the frustrated and disadvantaged, but by those who ``have it all.''
How can an activity once considered ``escapist'' appeal to so many in such an abundant society? If material things could satisfy, this should be the golden age. Yet watch television; read the papers and magazines; ask your neighbors, your children, their teachers. You'll wonder if ever before have so many people with enough food, clothes, and housing felt so desperate and dissatisfied.
I think this is the negative side of a very positive aspect of human nature. As Toynbee liked to point out, we are not merely physical creatures; we have a spiritual core, an inner self, which cannot be satisfied with material things. Just as the body needs food, the spirit needs meaning and ideals if it is to thrive.
Until a reasonable level of comfort is attained, energy and enterprise naturally flow into the pursuit of physical well-being. But there is a need in the human heart for meaning, an overriding drive for purpose, which is not so easily satisfied. We can block it, hide it, deny it, but there comes a time when that drive cannot be appeased by any amount of physical satisfaction. Then work, pleasure, excitement, sensation, even the thrill of dangerous recreation, will only leave the heart more hungry.
At that critical point, if a person does not find something higher to strive for, he or she starts to squeeze life dry. Blocked on all sides, seeing no purpose in their existence and no way to discover one, those with energy, sensitivity, and drive turn to channels that ultimately prove self-destructive.
This is especially true of the young, whose natural idealism suffocates without a higher vision. Young people experiment with drugs because they find little worth striving for. With all the power of the mass media, life is presented to them as having no purpose other than personal gratification. But physical satisfactions cloy quickly, and in the boredom and alienation that follow, drugs like cocaine appear alluring.
Researchers recently surveyed teen-agers on both sides of the Atlantic to see what was uppermost in their minds. In Europe, the overwhelming concern was nuclear war. For Americans, it was sex and drugs.
Young people need something higher to live for. They need purpose, goals, the kind of beacon ideals greater than oneself which alone can give life meaning. If they do not have such ideals, it is not their failure but ours.
Political and legal action is called for in curbing drug traffic. But as the appearance of ``designer drugs'' makes clear, human ingenuity can always stay one step ahead of legal control. We cannot solve the drug problem until we go at the main reason that drugs are used.
We need to show that this is a society with values higher than self-interest. In the end, it is the personal example of individuals -- as peers, as parents, as educators, as friends and co-workers -- that is going to decide how our society is going to face this epidemic, which no one now can avoid.
The search for meaning has been part of the human condition since ancient times. Today, however, I believe we stand at a crossroads. It is not just a few individuals but a whole culture that has gone as far in one direction as it is profitable to go. Like a snake strangling in its old skin, our society is constricted by outmoded values, which have to be shed if it is to grow. The pursuit of material satisfaction has served its historical purpose; it has made health and physical well-being possible for all.
But once affluence has been reached, there seems to be no other way for a civilization to grow than to turn to an ideal higher than self-aggrandizement. It is one of the noblest aspects of human nature that we are, ultimately, too big to be satisfied with anything less.
Eknath Easwaran, author of ``Gandhi The Man,'' has published new translations of ``The Bhagavad Gita'' and ``The Dhammapada'' as a contribution to the Festival of India.