To the Heart of the Drug Problem. Noted social psychologist cites spiritual emptiness, self-preoccupation as underlying causes
INTERVIEW: ROBERT COLES
WRITER, teacher, student of the human experience - Robert Coles combines many talents, energies, and sensitivities. His life has been a steady burn of caring about individual people, their life stories, their wholeness and uniqueness, and their well-being. The review on the next page of Bruce Ronda's biography of him, ``Intellect and Spirit,'' gives some idea of the man's vigor and intellectual scope. A professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University, Dr. Coles is the author of more than 40 books (see the selected list at the left). His ``Children of Crisis'' series, the fruit of years of research in the American South and Southwest, won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.Skip to next paragraph
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In the interview that follows, Coles talks about the drug problem today, which he says is to a large extent the result of spiritual emptiness and self-preoccupation.
Do we even know where to begin in solving the inner-city drug problem, with its many violent killings? And are we sure what is causing it?
Right now an increasing number of people are telling us that they want to legalize drugs, to make them available to kids. I interpret such an attitude as an act of moral surrender. We are inviting a moral and spiritual collapse. To use drugs is a form of self-obliteration. That we would have come to the point in the United States where prominent individuals can [recommend legalization] is a measure of how far removed we are from any moral standards and moral perspective on this situation.
I will add a psychological perspective. I doubt that any psychiatrist would argue that drugs are anything but harmful to people. So what we have is a moral and cultural surrender, which is the real issue. It's a cultural surrender in which people say, ``We don't care about these youngsters anymore, they are not worth our time anymore.'' Drawing on the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Bible, where it says that when the least among us is hurt, we are hurt, we are morally obligated to respond to the drug problem with all our effort and ingenuity.
What about the effectiveness of existing drug therapies? I've heard of only a few that stress the spiritual emptiness of drug abusers.
Without hesitation, I take the tack that abusers are spiritually empty. I think a lot of drug usage is tied up not only with social and economic problems and psychological problems, but with moral and spiritual problems. This is where we must have a tough appraisal of some of the people, if not most of them, who are involved. A lot of people have very little to fall back on other than themselves, other than contemporary secular psychology, other than materialism and a desire to climb up one or another social or economic or intellectual ladder. The result is a self-preoccupation that sets the stage for this kind of narcotic use, which is, if you stop to think about it, a means of self-stimulation and self-preoccupation.
But remember, it is not only poor people who are using drugs.
Very prominent people and well-to-do people are using drugs. They use them in different ways, perhaps. Maybe they prefer alcohol or pot or cocaine. There is widespread use among upper-middle class [people] - sleeping pills, stimulants, narcotics, alcohol, nicotine, a whole range of abuse that transcends class definitions and distinctions. I think this middle-class involvement is significant and is underreported, underanalyzed, under-thought about.
Does the middle-class involvement make it harder for society to judge what to do about the hard-core problem in the inner cities?
It is very easy to focus on the lower class yet again and talk about their problems, which are serious. But even there it isn't only a social and economic problem. Many of these kids are desperate for some kind of meaning in their lives and also for some kind of moral transformation. They need whatever kind of caring and help we can give to enable that transformation to take place.
This is why the Black Muslims have been so successful in using a rather strenuous, and some would say harsh, religious vision. But they nevertheless have been able to get at those who are suffering the most in ghetto life. Those they have helped have gone through personal transformation, which is needed in conquering drug habits. Now I'm not in favor necessarily of their particular theology or religious approach.