To the Heart of the Drug Problem. Noted social psychologist cites spiritual emptiness, self-preoccupation as underlying causes


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.

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.

But here Dostoyevsky would give us a reminder, that these challenges are harsh psychological and cultural realities we are dealing with, as they live in the lives of these people. So these drug users need a tough, strong moral response from our society.

What about law enforcement in solving the drug problem?

I would be in favor of putting drug dealers behind bars for life, or for decades. I'd favor making the power of the law present in these communities as an act of caring on the part of the political and social community at large. We cannot shirk this duty to society. We've got to move in with the law - with prosecution and imprisonment. Gun control is needed. And break up these gangs, which are absolutely waging a kind of war on this country and ought to be responded to in that vein, as a major threat to the United States.

But at the same time, we have to explore means of reaching these kids morally and spiritually through the church, through teaching, through mentorship on the part of those willing to form attachments and involvements with these kids. I mean family to family and person to person. Those of us willing to do it need to be taught how to do this, and we need encouragement to do it. Strong social and economic commitments are needed. We need some kind of reform in the teaching profession that enables us to reach these kids and become part of their lives.

Teaching about religion in public schools is increasing in the United States. Will this help solve the drug problem?

It depends on the quality and tone of the religion that is being taught, and how it is taught. If we are to get yet another body of literal, factually oriented instruction - well, this shouldn't be the thrust of this teaching. I think the kids are interested in moral reflection and maybe in trying to understand what these great religions stand for and what their purpose is and what their moral thrust is.

I know teaching about religion is a complicated problem in education - having to do with indoctrination and the potential intimidation of vulnerable minorities when religion becomes an issue in public schools. I'm not naive about that. But surely in some spirit of amity and dutiful and reverent response to the varieties of religion, we can perhaps do this teaching in such a way that we will not be offending people. And we must respond to those who fear or distrust religion or find it beyond the pale for themselves or their children.

For example, there is a broad viewpoint, the so-called existentialist viewpoint, that can be taken in teaching that sees in all of us a creature who, through words, tries to understand the nature of the world and asks questions about it. I think religious and spiritual life is connected to that fundamental human quality, and in that sense, we all can partake somewhat in this investigation, and so can our children in school.

Can individuals really choose not to take drugs? Do they have the power to refuse them?

We do have will and moral choice. Despite all of the unconscious pressures upon us, and in spite of all the external, socio-political pressures, I still feel we can transcend these and find our particular selves and our particular inclinations. We should not sell ourselves short in this regard. We are simply not a bundle of reflexes or a bundle of drives without any control over ourselves. We are the creatures who conceptualize those impulses and, if we are Freud or Marx or Adam Smith, write books on such impulses. If people can write books about instinctual life, they can transcend it, and they do. And have. It's a human possibility - our capacity for transcendence.

SELECTED BOOKS BY ROBERT COLES THE CALL OF STORIES: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Houghton Mifflin, 1989

HARVARD DIARY: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular, Crossroad, 1988

ERIK ERIKSON: The Growth of His Work, Da Capo, 1987

THE MORAL LIFE OF CHILDREN Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986

THE POLITICAL LIFE OF CHILDREN Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986

A FESTERING SWEETNESS Poems, U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1978

WOMEN OF CRISIS, I: Lives of Struggle and Hope, (with Jane Coles), Dell, 1979

IRONY IN THE MIND'S LIFE: Essays on Novels by James Agee, Elizabeth Bowen, and George Eliot, New Directions, 1978

UPROOTED CHILDREN The Early Life, of Migrant Farm Workers, U. of Pittsburgh Press, 1970

CHILDREN OF CRISIS, I: A Study of Courage and Fear, Atlantic Little, Brown, 1967

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.