Alexander, B. (2020). [Special issue]. International Journal of Existential Positive Psychology, 9(1), 1-8. Retrieved from https://www.meaning.ca/ijepp/special-issue-2018-proceedings-of-the-meaning-conference/
Creating Healing Communities in a Toxic Society: Viktor Frankl and Jordan Peterson
Bruce Alexander, Ph.D.
Existential therapy can be a wonderful gift to addicted people and will help some to improve their lives in tangible ways. However, no combination of existential treatment, other psychological and medical treatments, personal courage, harm reduction, and recovery groups can stem the rising tide of addiction in Canada or in the world. As Victor Frankl and many others have shown, the psychological environment of late modernity is too toxic for most people to handle without an intolerably high risk of psychological disasters. Nothing short of epochal social change will restore us to a reasonable level of psychological health. To face that daunting truth, as Frankl did, opens the way towards a new level of psychological realism. Perhaps realism is the greatest gift we have to offer at this point.
Keywords: Victor Frankl, Jordan Peterson, addiction theory, suffering, social change
My Two Existential Crises
I was born in New York City, USA in 1939. By the time I was old enough to be aware of the outer world, World War II was over and my former country had become a glorified symbol of democracy, wealth, and military power for much of the world. What the United States lacked in real achievements in those postwar days was filled in by Hollywood, particularly Walt Disney, who made even the darkest corners of the American experience seem altogether Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah in Technicolor (Disney, 1946).
My first existential crisis came early in my adult life. I felt that my country, my profession, and my marriage had let me down badly. Most of all, I had let myself down. This all culminated in 1970 when, at age 30, I abandoned my country, my wife, my extended American family, my American identity, my vaulting ambitions for a career in high-tech psychological research, and some supremely stupid ideas that had ossified in my youthful mind. I managed to maintain contact—thank God—with my two young children who are now in their 50s and doing well, and with my parents and sisters.
I came to Vancouver, with my hippie haircut and my tie-dyed t-shirts, as an assistant professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University, along with many other shell-shocked young academics and fellow Vietnam war-resisters of the late 1960s. Like many other ex-Americans of that era, my view of the world changed radically in Canada. Life acquired new, unanticipated meanings.
In retrospect, I now feel pretty sure that leaving the United States saved my life. By the standard measures, I had been well on the way to becoming an alcoholic and I was definitely tantalized by the idea of suicide before I left. In Vancouver, my misery, self-pity, stupidity, and excessive drinking and drug use were gradually diminished, although not without some further big mistakes on my part.
My family life is now intact and secure. My wife and I have wonderful friends and our blended family is blessed with wonderful children who appeared both before and after my first existential crisis. We love the grandchildren of our family dearly.
I have many inspiring professional colleagues and friends, one of whom, Sara Klinkhamer, introduced me tonight. I even have some professional standing, on the fringes of the field of addiction psychology, if not in the orthodox center. You may be sure that I am not going to flee my wife, my family, my country, my identity, or my profession now. Suicide has lost all its fascination for me.
But now I am having a second existential crisis.
This is not a joke.
I am 78 years old and a cancer patient. Although my demise is not imminent, death is a palpable presence. It would be fair to say that, as in the ancient tale, death sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear from time to time.
It’s not that I fear dying. I have been given an abundant share of life and the time will come for me to let go of that. No problem. I can even look forward with pleasant anticipation to a really long rest, and I feel prepared to face up to any afterlife issues that may arise, although I am not expecting any.
My fear is that if I should die in a state of despair, my closest family members will sense it, and that my death will cast a shadow over them. Instead, I want my death to be an occasion of renewal and inspiration for my family. Erik Erikson (1950) once wisely wrote, “Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (p. 269). My parents gave that gift to me and I want to pass it on down the line.
My existential despair is focused upon the world I am leaving behind. In order to be concise, I will express my despair here in terms of my work in the field of addiction, although it is actually broader than that. I fear that all the work that I have done—along with countless others who have devoted themselves to the field of addiction—has been for nothing.
All of this makes me happy to be in this room tonight. Where else could I hope to find so many listeners who will understand my story of geriatric existential despair? (In fact, when I was writing this, I had the distinct feeling that I may have snuck in here on the pretext of being worthy of an award, in the hope of getting some free advice from a whole roomful of existential therapists.)
Has All Our Work in Addiction Been for Nothing?
A presentation earlier in the conference by Geoff Thompson (Blagen, Klinkhamer, & Thompson, 2018) helped me to pin down part of why I am feeling despair about my life’s work in addiction. As Geoff pointed out, there are now 60—not 16, but 60—academic journals that specialise in articles on the topic of addiction. I think it is humanly impossible to absorb all the addiction data that is pumped into cyberspace each year as well as the scores of brilliantly informative biographies and autobiographies of addicted people. Plus, everywhere I go, people tell me their own addiction and recovery stories that make me further aware of how much I still have to learn.
Along with all this information, there are dozens of conflicting and irreconcilable theories, many of them backed by talented and dedicated scholars. Moreover, none of these conflicting theories are new. They were all around when I entered the field in 1970, and their core ideas can be traced directly back to Plato, Aristotle, Buddha, St. Augustine, and other sages of the past (see Alexander & Shelton, 2014; Heather, 2017). Although there are few, if any, really new ideas in this shemozzle, the old ones are often transformed into new forms, wrapped in new images, glossed with new jargon, legitimatized with dazzling high-tech data (see Campbell, 2007). The field of addiction is not short of ideas, but instead clogged with way too many—and none of them can seemingly be proven or disproven. Truly, the field of addiction is an intellectual disaster area.
Despite our huge efforts in scholarship and in treatment, the problem of addiction is getting worse (Vancouver Sun Editorial Board, 2018). Not only are there ever more drugs to which people get seriously addicted, instead of only a few, but there are countless “process addictions” now being shown to be every bit as dangerous as extreme drug addictions. Collectively, there are many more people seriously addicted to process addictions than to drug addictions (Sussman, Lisha, & Griffiths, 2011). Wherever historical trends can be measured, they seem to be going up.
I cannot help but obsess over whether all of my, and our, efforts have been wasted.
Viktor Frankl to the Rescue
I believe that Viktor Frankl comes closest to making sense of the rising tide of addiction for the modern age. His general theory of meaning-seeking seems to knit together the broad range of ways that addicted people actually act. You will know that he does not discuss addiction at length in Man’s Search for Meaning. Nevertheless, he does specifically describe addiction and youthful drug use as a response to the modern epidemic of “existential vacuum” and “meaninglessness” (Frankl, 1959/1976, pp. 107, 139-140).
Tonight, I will use my terminology, rather than his, and speak of addiction in the broadest sense as a response to “dislocation.” As I am using the word, “dislocation” has many near synonyms, starting with “existential vacuum” and “meaninglessness.” It can also be roughly equated with identity diffusion, purposelessness, chronic loneliness, alienation, lack of belonging, poverty of the spirit, the aftermath of trauma, and lack of attachment (Alexander, 2018a, 2018b).
Because I have talked about dislocation in at least a hundred speeches to groups like this and in front of a few thousand university students, I know that many people understand this concept on a personal level and are eager to tell their own stories about it. Over the decades, these discussions have helped me to realize that it is a very real experience for many, many people who will never be diagnosed as addicted and an even stronger, often unbearable experience for people who are diagnosable as addicted.
After a lifetime of personal, family, historical, clinical, laboratory, and academic investigation, I have come to understand the terrible flood of addiction to many, many habits as a way that many people adapt to the dislocation of living in the period of history that we call late modernity. For a more detailed analysis of the historical, clinical, and scientific evidence that underlies this conclusion, you would have to read a two-hour version of this talk (i.e., Alexander, 2018a, 2018b). Or you could read my book about it (Alexander, 2008/2010).
Not only is the current opioid overdose crisis best understood in terms of dislocation, but so is the steadily rising tide of addiction to many other drugs and other pursuits, including gambling, wealth, sex, power, social media, video games, shopping, hoarding, and so on and on and on. This way of looking at addiction also helps to understand why the rising tide of addiction is so closely interrelated with the alarming growth of other psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, hostile resentment, obesity, and suicide.
Of course, other eras of history have had their own potentially catastrophic problems, but late modernity, for all its dazzling accomplishments, is uniquely scarred by addiction and closely related psychological problems—as well as global warming and fear of nuclear destruction, of course.
Because I have read some of the great literature of the late modern age, I know that this understanding of the modern age as being psychologically toxic because it mass produces dislocation has been advanced by many of the most studied intellectuals of the modern era in addition to Viktor Frankl, such as Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Karl Polanyi, Vaclav Havel, Charles Taylor, Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, and Byung Chul Han.
Because I have talked to many people suffering from addictions of all sorts, I know that the idea that addiction can serve as a way of adapting to dislocation does not need to be explained to them. Instead, addicted clients explained it to me decades ago, when I was a young therapist.
Thus, both my scholarly and clinical experience have conspired to convince me that the most severe forms of addiction are best understood as ways of adapting to all the forms of dislocation that are built into the irrepressible growth of modernity. The impact of modernity’s global exploitation of the world’s environment and culture, consumerism, income inequality, superpower propaganda, and so forth work their way through to people’s everyday experience in the form of fractured families and communities; unwanted solitude; vacuous, obtrusive literature and entertainment; hateful and stupid public discourse; indifferent bureaucracy; deliberately addicting social media; and so on.
But this lifetime of learning has not brought me what I really need. I am deeply unsatisfied, even tonight, when the International Network on Personal Meaning is honouring me with this special recognition. I want existential psychologists to accept, as I think Frankl did, the need to respond effectively to the toxic society to which we adapt with dangerous forms of addiction and so many other kinds of psychological distress. As Frankl put it, “meaning is possible even in spite of suffering—provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological, or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic” (Frankl, 1959/1976, p. 113).
An even more eloquent version of the idea of acting to change society was given to me years ago, as a story told by a Canadian Aboriginal grandmother who was also a drug counsellor for her reserve. The story depicts the drug counsellors of her tribe in northern Canada who sit watchfully by the side of a raging northern mountain river. When they see somebody being swept away in the raging white foam of addiction they jump into the torrent to rescue them. They know how to swim through the rapids to the drowning swimmer because their elders have told them where the rocks are hidden. Using all their strength, they eventually reach the addicted person and drag him or her through the torrent to the shore and with their last ounce of strength heave the person up on the bank.
Sometimes the effort is wasted. The addicted person slips off the riverbank and is lost again, in the foam. But sometimes he or she stands up and walks from the river into the forest, re-joining the people and the land.
When someone is saved, the storyteller told me, counsellors swell with pride. They feel like true warriors! They would feel satisfied that they are making a great contribution to their people except…
…Except, she said, that some son-of-a-bitch upstream is throwing more and more people into the water all the time! The counsellors eventually realize that they are not winning but losing for all their heroic efforts, but they persist anyway.
I believe that we who care about addiction must continue the heroic rescue work, but I also believe that the even more, absolutely essential task is getting rid of “the-son of-a-bitch upstream,” that is, the psychological toxicity that dislocates so many people in the world of late modernity.
I believe that existential psychologists need to pay much more attention to the fact that we cannot treat our way out the malaise of modernity, no matter how much we improve our therapeutic techniques and cultivate our personal sensitivity and intuition. This is not to say that our efforts are unimportant, only that they will never overcome the flood of addiction that gives us our clients, some of whom we can comfort and help, but most of whom we cannot. We cannot build communities in our therapy sessions that are robust enough to withstand the toxic pressure of the larger social environment.
I cannot avoid the daunting conclusion that nothing short of epochal social change will overcome our ever-rising flood of addiction and related psychological problems. The essential task is political and generational. I am nearly 80 years old, but maybe I am still a hippie!
Obstacles to Epochal Social Change
What stands in the way of changing the world is the unjustifiable faith that we can quell the flood of addiction by measures that fall short of epochal social change.
Even the smartest and most realistic thinkers in the field make what I believe is this deadly error. Decades ago, it was my friends the drug legalizers, who thought they could solve the addiction problem by ending the War on Drugs; I certainly favour legalizing cannabis and some other illicit drugs—particularly some of the safer opioids—but it is clear now that legalization will not solve our addiction problems, any more than legalizing alcohol after the prohibition years solved our alcoholism problems or legalizing casino gambling has solved our gambling addiction problems.
Then it was the harm reduction people, and I was one of them. At the height of our enthusiasm at the end of the 20th century, we allowed ourselves to feel that harm reduction would solve our addiction problems. We now know that although harm reduction solves many problems, the tide of addiction has continued to rise.
Then it was what is sometimes known as the recovery movement. This is the brave idea that groups of people can form healing communities in which dislocation can be overcome for those who live there. I am particularly fond of the recovery movement and awed by some of the intentional, healing communities that I have been invited to visit. But I do not think it is possible to overcome the rising tide of addiction this way either. People cannot restrict their existence to a single, localized community for very long in the modern world. And no community can completely protect people from the overwhelming toxicity of the late modern environment. The history of the last few centuries is littered with the wreckage of intentional communities that eventually have been undermined by the force of the larger late modern society in which they must exist.
In all three cases, these optimistic thinkers acted as if their perfectly sensible, compassionate ideas could solve the problem of addiction, but events have proven that they cannot, even though they are valuable ideas for other important—but not equally important—reasons.
Today, my main problem is with treatment people—including existential psychologists—even though I am well aware of the good that treatment does for some individuals, and even though I have been involved in treatment work myself. I want treatment people to be more forthright about what their treatment can and cannot accomplish.
Jordan Peterson (2018) is my case in point for this evening. He is a talented thinker and, I would guess, a very good clinician. I chose him as my target tonight because of the signs that his thinking appears to be having a major impact on the INPM. In many ways, I think that this is a very good thing.
Peterson has proposed a long-overdue rebalancing of psychology. He has sharply reminded psychologists with a predisposition to reductionism and determinism of the inescapable reality of the human agency and the necessity of individual responsibility. I hope that this aspect of his thinking will reverberate in psychology for a long time.
Peterson also points out that cultural tradition is an essential source of personal meaning, and that a society that disdains its own traditions must inevitably pay a price in meaninglessness.
Peterson has brilliantly shown how foolish it is for psychologists to ignore the dark sides of human nature as depicted in the profound cultural legends and religion. He has taught me much about the role of faith in human psychology, using himself and his family as prime examples. To leave out faith is to ignore an essential aspect of human psychology.
Drs. Paul Wong and Gordon Carkner (2018) have honoured Jordan Peterson’s work at this conference with a special discussion session in which they “decoded” some of his difficult concepts, and I think this was a valuable contribution.
But I feel Jordan Peterson—and many other psychologists concerned with meaning—have gone way too far in one major direction that directly exacerbates my own problem of existential despair. Dr. Peterson puts so much weight on culturing individual responsibility and courage that he explicitly and emphatically rules out actively pursuing the kind of social change that I have come to think is essential to controlling the problem of addiction. I think he has far too much faith in the essential rectitude of the existing social order and in the capacity for individual improvement to eventually transform society. In this way, Peterson follows in the ancient footsteps of the Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, as do many other contemporary psychologists (see Alexander & Shelton, 2014, chap. 3).
For example: Rule #6 in Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life, is entitled, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world” (Peterson, 2018, pp. 147-159). This theme is not limited to his chapter on this rule, but appears throughout his book.
He begins chapter 6 by quoting the posthumous notes of some well-known recent murderers—“shooters”—who have terrorized public schools. Their notes often reveal that these murderers passionately blame God, others, and society for their own misery. Peterson’s advice to them is that they could have done a lot to relieve their own misery, and that by doing so they might have achieved a workable degree of contentment and spared the lives of their victims, as well as saving their own lives. I think this is excellent advice to young people who are so dislocated and bitterly resentful that they have the potential to become killers.
But, at many points, Peterson appears to be offering this same advice to everybody, including some of the thinkers I admire most, people such as Naomi Klein and Pope Francis. These thinkers believe that the world needs to change, and they devote large amounts of their life’s energy to achieving the changes they envision.
Peterson’s advice that nobody should try to change the world until their house is in perfect order is eloquently and charmingly written. To experience his persuasive eloquence, read his conclusion to chap. 6 (Peterson, 2018, pp. 157-159). But his advice is crippling! “Setting your house in perfect order” is perfectly impossible, according to Peterson’s own reasoning. He notes in earlier chapters that human nature always contains “serpents” that will foil any hope or pretention of perfection (p. 47). Who of us can ever set their house in perfect order? Surely not me. I suspect that even the Pope would claim not to have his “house in perfect order.”
However, I think that even I have achieved enough learning in my 78 years that I now feel qualified to vote in elections (as I once did not). More importantly, I have studied my profession and the literature of the modern era long enough so that I feel qualified to have strong opinions on what is wrong with the society around me and the emerging world society that is establishing itself on planet earth. I feel qualified to work in organizations and movements that are explicitly dedicated to changing the world. Moreover, I admire many people who seem to be fully qualified to try to change local and world society as well, even when I do not agree with the specific changes that they have in mind.
Young people can reasonably try to change the social order too. Jordan Peterson does not like the 1960s, but I do. He thinks of it as a time of self-indulgent philosophy and of gratuitous bashing of the profound traditions passed down by “dead white males,” not to mention the chaos of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. However, I saw the 60s as a time when a generation of very young people, following the leadership of some wise elders, became aware that the Vietnam War to which they were expected to give their allegiance was a monumental slaughter that had nothing to do with freedom, but much in common with the well-documented hypocritical slaughters of previous imperial powers. When I have looked back on the political philosophy that animated young adults like myself in the 1960s, I have regretted the excesses of tradition bashing, and even regretted my own excesses of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, but have not regretted the genuine political optimism and activism that flowed from the anti-war and anti-imperialist movements those days. Those youthful activists helped to bring a crazy war to an end and opened the eyes of many older people to new ways of seeing the world. They changed the world!
I want to see more youthful activists in the 21st century, along with wise elders, who want to change the world and overcome some of the problems that have grown out of the late modern age. I myself want to help change the world to bring addiction under control, as well as to confront its other potentially catastrophic problems. I do not think I should rule myself out of this quest because my house is not yet in perfect order. There will always be serpents, but the world has always been built and rebuilt by imperfect human beings, rather than by saints.
But, as I see new ways of thinking arising in the field of addiction and finding public acceptance, I am repeatedly disappointed to see that they do not recognize the necessity for epochal social change. They are helpful and well-intended as far as they go, but they do not take the final step, which is the essential one. I increasingly fear they will not in my lifetime and that the rising tide of addiction could eventually become truly catastrophic. I fear for my grandchildren.
That is my second existential crisis. I will be grateful for any advice you have to offer.
Alexander, B. K. (2010). The globalization of addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 2008)
Alexander, B. K. (2018a). Addiction: A structural problem of modern, global society. In H. Pickard, & S. H. Ahmed (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of philosophy and science of addiction (pp. 501-510). New York, NY: Routledge.
Alexander, B. K. (2018b). Treatment for addiction: Why aren’t we doing better? Bruce K. Alexander Website. Retrieved from www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/treatmentarecovery/295-treatment-for-addiction
Alexander, B. K., & Shelton, C. P. (2014). A history of psychology in western civilization. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. Blagen, M. T., Klinkhamer, S., & Thompson, G. R. (2018, August 4). The opioid crisis. Symposium presented at the 10th Biennial International Meaning Conference, Vancouver, Canada.
Campbell, N. D. (2007). Discovering addiction: The science and politics of substance abuse research. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Disney, W. (Producer), & Foster, H., & Jackson, W. (Directors). (1946). Song of the South [Motion Picture]. United States: Walt Disney Productions.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.
Frankl, V. E. (1976). Man’s search for meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon. (Original work published 1959)
Heather, N. (2017). Addiction as a form of akrasia. In N. Heather, & G. Segal (Eds.), Addiction and choice: Rethinking the relationship (pp. 133-150). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.
Sussman, S., Lisha, N., & Griffiths, M. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation & the Health Professions, 34(1), 3-56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163278710380124
Vancouver Sun Editorial Board. (2018, July 27). Editorial: Treatment and recovery must be priority in dealing with addiction. The Vancouver Sun, Retrieved from https://vancouversun.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-treatment-and-recovery-must-be-priority-in-dealing-with-addiction
Wong, P. T. P., & Carkner, G. (2018, August 5). Decoding Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life. Lecture presented at the 10th Biennial International Meaning Conference, Vancouver, Canada.