Shiny, Happy People

As election season gets underway, a spate of stories in corporate media and from medical associations warn of a collective wave of depression and despair hitting the United States, particularly surrounding politics. Much of it is manifested in lethargy, hopelessness, but sometimes even in misplaced anger. But never fear! Our betters are on hand to offer “solutions,” including some that are not focused on eliminating Donald Trump from the national scene. Nevertheless, there is reason for caution in considering their advice.

I first noticed the ads for the so-called “edibles,” or “gummies” while scrolling through social media. There are a number of companies now making them, and they have catchy names such as “Rose,” “Out of Office,” and “Soul.” The ads feature “happy” people, who are “microdosing” on the edibles that give them a “mellow buzz” without needing to get drunk. Almost all of the ads decline to state explicitly what these edibles consist of, but it doesn’t take much digging to find out that the “delicious” edibles are just cannabis in a gummy.

Therapies are on the rise as well, but if you think that means people talking to a licensed professional psychologist or psychiatrist, you are very wrong. Ketamine therapy claiming to treat depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder has become so popular, that companies like “Mindbloom” now assure the patients/customers that do-it-at-home ketamine therapy can give you an exit out of an unhealthy state of mind.

Advertisements make these products sound more like amino acid or vitamin supplements than mind-altering drugs, but ketamine therapy, is in fact the ingestion of a psychedelic drug for the purpose of inducing disassociation from reality. Many companies providing this service claim that after just six treatments (which can range from dissolving a pill in your mouth that must be spit out after a few minutes or taking the ketamine through an IV), patients will be free of their troubles. It claims to promote brain neuroplasticity (very much a scientifically proven reality)—opening the brain to the possibility of rewiring it and thus, changing the behavior. Of course, there is that “psychedelic” component, which appears to be lost on its advocates.

Although ingesting a cannabis edible and doing the ketamine therapy are two different things, they do have a few things in common. Existentially speaking, the use of either of these products in our society today does not appear to induce feelings of shame. In fact, ads for the cannabis edibles proudly state that it’s a great thing to get high, to have that “mellow buzz,” especially if you are a “working mom.” One ad even stated that the edible helps you “sleep through the screams” with a baby emoji next to it. These are not parodies.

Neither marijuana edibles or ketamine therapy represent anything new in terms of the human desire to be free of anxiety or depression. Americans have been consuming antidepressants for decades now, but few ever ask to what end? Seldom does anyone question whether taking a drug for depression and anxiety is a long-term solution, or whether there are long-term effects on the brain and the rest of the body. (The same applies, especially, to cannabis—which we now know does have long-term effects on the brain.)

We have entered the Brave New World that Aldous Huxley wrote about. Here, everything is clean and antisepticized, including the use of drugs. You don’t have to have to sit around in a circle with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters using LSD, nor do you have to smoke a joint. Now it’s all packaged cleanly and beautifully, and it comes with a money-back guarantee of happiness. After all, you deserve it. (This is the same as an alcoholic saying he or she deserves to have a drink after a two-week sobriety.)

If Americans really are depressed then, like any normal human being, they are seeking happiness. But do they know what happiness is? This is exactly the ignorance ketamine therapies or edibles companies are preying upon: Here is happiness in a jar and a box. Pay the price and enjoy! But, of course, these people are confusing the idea of happiness with pleasure.

It’s natural to want to escape pain and suffering, be it mental or physical. It’s also natural to want to feel better when we are suffering, but where is the line between pleasure-seeking and working toward a more ordered life? American culture has been descending “into the mouth of madness” for years now. It has forgotten that the “pursuit of happiness” is not the same as the pursuit of pleasure.

Aristotle would have a few choice words for these pushers of pleasure as happiness. For him, in order to achieve happiness, one has to first become virtuous. One has to cultivate good habits that expand the good. Happiness, or eudaimonia, is not a simple state of being but an “activity expressing virtue.” In other words, instead of “checking out” of life, we must actually “check-in” and act.

By its very nature, action is relational. We relate to other people, animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. And even when we are contemplating or praying, we are relating to God. Whatever therapy du jour is happening, it denies this fundamental relationship between our interior life and exterior world.

Let me infuse some Slavic spirit into this Ancient Greek thought. I consider myself to be “an honest optimist,” although lately, given the state of the world, maybe I should say I am a “happy pessimist.” Either way, both rely on an acceptance of reality which necessarily includes pain and suffering. Like death, suffering is inescapable. It represents the burden of being. But at the same time and side by side, there is also happiness in this world, which relies on beauty, order, and virtue.

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), we witness a scene of a family—father, mother, and daughter—standing next to a body of putrid water, looking into the landscape of desolation and Communist brutalist buildings and factories. Every image and reality that is in front of them is just another extension of the Soviet totalitarian regime and utter ugliness. Yet this one family, in its order and beauty, stands and towers (metaphysically speaking) above the tyrannical landscape. There is no escape yet the radical acceptance of it is the freedom.

Have we finally reached, in the words of Philip Rieff, “the triumph of the therapeutic?” People have always had the need to escape through various ways, but an escape from what? The question that looms large is “who am I?” and perhaps this is the escape we are trying to make. The burden of being is real, but the essence of life is not primarily contained in Hamlet’s maxim, “to be or not to be.” Albert Camus was not wrong when he wrote that “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” However, there is also another side to being human, namely one in which we recognize the face-to-face relationship that is possible with another.    

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