Guest post by Liz Greene
I know a lot of people who struggle with addiction. I know alcoholics, prescription pain-killer junkies, and former heroin addicts. I have addicts for close friends and addicts in my family. With addiction being such a widespread force in my life, I’ve found myself questioning the choices of others — and examining many of my own.
As an existential humanist, I am a walking contradiction. While the two philosophies have much in common, they also have some stark differences. It’s those differences that make it hard to comprehend the why behind addiction, and the possibility of recovery.
Humanism Vs. Existentialism
While existential and humanistic psychologies are similar, they’re not completely interchangeable. Both emphasize objective reality, life meaning, and human potential. Both reject the notion that there is any kind of greater meaning or supernatural element in life (e.g. god, demons, spirits, etc.) Because of this, both believe there is no predefined meaning to life — it is up to humans to create their own meaning and purpose for existence.
Existentialists believe that life is hard. It’s comprised of pain, pleasure, heartbreak, loneliness, love, affection, anxiety, guilt, and eventually, death. These things are not merely possibilities in life, they are inevitable. According to Existentialists, most humans live in denial of their full humanity — referring to this denial as inauthenticity. While there are as many ways to be inauthentic, conventionality is the most common, ignoring one’s freedom and living a life of conformity and shallow materialism.
Existentialists maintain that to live authentically, you have to be aware of your freedom and duty to create yourself as well as the inevitability of anxiety, guilt, and death. Existential philosophers believe that there is no absolute meaning to life, and thus life has no purpose. However, there is a great deal of value in life and the freedom of choice that arises from having no absolute meaning.
Humanists believe in the innate value or worth of every living person and in helping people achieve their full potential. Their view is that this is the only life we have and that we owe it to ourselves and others to make it the best life possible for all humankind. They regard both the good and bad of society as a human creation and believe that humans are best able to solve global problems when they are free to use reason and knowledge as their tools.
Generally speaking, humanistic psychology has a more positive view on humanity, whereas existential psychology examines the darkness of humanity. This is why I am a humanist on good days, an existentialist on bad days, and a rough mixture of the two on average.
When it comes to addiction, I find myself at war with the two philosophies. Are humans doomed to suffer addiction as one of the inevitable absurdities in life, or are they capable of pulling themselves up from rock bottom using reason, knowledge, and a belief in themselves?
As I studied addiction through both an existential and humanistic lens, I found some interesting viewpoints to consider:
Drug Use: Freedom, Choice, and Personal Responsibility
One of both existentialism and humanism’s fundamental beliefs is that individuals are free to make choices and shape who they are through their values, decisions, and actions.
When it comes to decision-making, existentialism argues that people should make decisions based on what has meaning to them and reject society’s imposition that certain beliefs, values, and rules be dutifully obeyed. Humanism prefers people measure the value of their decisions based on how it would affect human life — the individual self, family, society, and humankind.
Existentialists assert that individuals should take responsibility for their choices without the help of laws, rules, or traditions. Humanists stress the importance of taking responsibility for actions as they have an effect not only on oneself, but others as well. Both feel that decisions are not without consequences, and personal responsibility is emphasized as being incredibly important.
An existentialist views engaging in drug and alcohol use as illustrating the human desire to remove oneself from physical reality and exist outside the realm of what is considered naturally occurring. They surmise that an individual might become addicted to a substance because it fulfills essential intrapsychic and interpersonal needs.
A humanist understands that taking drugs and drinking alcohol can be pleasurable, but has concerns about the long-term consequences for the individual, their loved ones, and the community. They believe that addiction can destroy an individual’s freedom, autonomy, and the capacity to reason.
In Western culture, addiction is largely considered to be a disease. While it’s true that genetics may play a role in addiction, implying that addicts have no freedom in the face of addiction releases them from the responsibility to make sound decisions and build meaningful lives — directly countering the principles of both existentialism and humanism.
Religion’s Negative Effect on Recovery
Spiritually-based treatment programs assist thousands of addicts every year by treating addiction as a spiritual problem as much as a physical one. They pose that a closer relationship with God can end dependence on drugs and alcohol. While religion has certainly helped numerous people overcome their addiction, it’s also responsible for turning some addicts away.
The extent to which faith plays a role in substance abuse treatment ranges from minimal to all-encompassing. The most famous recovery groups, AA and NA, put it at the forefront, with their 12-step program requiring addicts to surrender their will to a higher power in order to achieve recovery. Unfortunately, this focus on a higher power has proven to make many people uncomfortable, going so far as to leave the program and never return.
By encouraging addicts to give up freedom of choice and concede any responsibility in their recovery, it takes away what little control they had left on their life. Instead of being built up, they are torn down. The message they receive is, “You’re so broken that only God can fix you.” This elimination of control and purpose is likely to lead to relapse, as perceived meaninglessness in life and loss of control is a factor in substance use.
Utilizing Existentialism & Humanism in Recovery
Both existentialism and humanism have found a role in recovery. Existential psychologists strive to help individuals find their own subjective life meaning in a world with no absolute purpose, while humanist psychologists take a nurturing and supportive stance on human development, and on the limitless possibilities for growth within. Both approaches value the basic goodness in people and the human potential.
Because these psychotherapies only target the underlying factors of behavioral and mental health concerns, the patient’s primary issues may not be addressed. As such, existential psychotherapy is often used in combination with other treatments in order to increase its effectiveness and encourage recovery.
As an existential humanist, I’ve come to accept that the addicts I love have to face their struggle as individuals — they must make, and be responsible for, their own decisions. My place is simply to offer support and love.
As Carl Sagan once said, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.