by Geoff Birch
“One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.” When the legendary Bob Marley sang these words in his song Trenchtown Rock he was touching upon something we can all relate to. One thing I’ve come to realize about life is that we all experience pain in its various forms and we all have a need and desire to alleviate that pain. In addition, inside every person is a question that will not be ignored and it inquires for our entire lives. For one it could be distant echoes pondered in the quiet of night and for another it could be powerful longings in the foreground of every day. Whether it is quiet or loud, this persistent question is simply ‘Why?’ and not so simply it is referred to as existential angst. From birth until death, every one of us on some level will search for the meaning of our existence, try to discern our place in the world, and attempt to balance our joys and our sorrows. These realities, like the sun, rise and set on every human being on earth.
One of the most encouraging aspects of my work as a counsellor is that people have many similarities that indicate we are closer to each other than we think. It is this commonality that provides us all with an opportunity. We all intimately know, at one time or another, the drive to soothe our souls, and we all know how it feels when this urge morphs unnoticed into addiction. Addiction touches all of us at some point in our lives. Some of us satiate our pain and our longings with food, some with work, some with drugs, some with shopping, some with hyper texting/social networking, some with gambling, some with gossip, some with sex, and some with ________. Whatever we fill the ‘blank’ with, some of the reasons why we do it are because it feels good, or the recreation helps us escape for a while, or so we can cope. Isn’t that why we all know the trap of addiction so well? It is comforting to alleviate pain and soothe the longings of our existence—it can feel like a euphoric warm blanket. This scenario, combined with deep-seated emotional and psychological drives can lead us down a path where we feel our autonomy slowly slip away as things get out of control. For many, life’s struggles are compounded by factors such as poverty, oppression, stress, injustice, health, abuse, criminalization, early childhood trauma and marginalization to name a few. The reason this is encouraging is not that we struggle or that we sometimes lose our way in surviving — it is encouraging because we all exist somewhere along the spectrum of these experiences and this provides us all with an opportunity: empathy breeds compassion.
We are all sovereign individuals that in a perfect world should be able to have the freedom in choosing the direction of our own lives as long as we don’t infringe on the freedom of others. Yet the concept of ‘live and let live’ is difficult for most of us to practice well. Something else works against this concept for when we don’t understand someone we tend to fear them, and this leads to all forms of unhelpful treatments of others. We all have the capacity to participate in making someone a scapegoat because they are too stark a reminder of what scares us about ourselves. But when we recognize our common struggles, we can replace our fears with understanding and we can begin to empower others through relationships to the benefit of us all.
We as a community can be the first line of ‘prevention and treatment’ for each other when others amongst us are struggling. We all know how it feels when we seek belonging but are met instead with marginalization. We all know on some level the sting of judgment or the crushing weight of oppression. And the opposite is true. We all know the power of a smile, a kind word, or an act of acceptance that provided reprieve when we felt like we couldn’t face another day. There is a place for the treatment of addiction and personal pain to be addressed in the confidential environment of counselling or support groups, and there are times when people need to attend residential treatment programs or seek other interventions that match their needs and their worldview. However, I still believe many of society’s ills and its subsequent breakdowns can be prevented and treated if we replace fear with compassion in our interactions with one another. One path that leads to satisfying the void of our existence and to healing the depths of our pain is found in turning away from counterfeit forms of fulfillment and embracing authentic relationships built on unconditional love, freedom, and mercy. Liberty and life’s meaning can be found in how we relate with strangers, neighbours, friends, family and nature. In this way, we can soothe the soul in Hope.
Geoff Birch is a Youth Outreach Addictions Counsellor for the Hope & Area Transition Society