I recall Garrison Keillor noting a study which informed us that coffee was an addiction and that coffee was good for us. This is a new concept he said, that there could be an addiction that is good for us. And the audience chuckled. The event of this humorous anecdote is worth exploring. We’ve so coated the concept “addiction” with the shell of “bad” that we fail to see how much of our behavior, good and bad, is already an addiction.
We don’t call it an addiction when the drug to which we are addicted—no, let’s get rid of “drug” which is coated in the same shell as “addiction”—when the chemical to which we are addicted is produced by the body. But all drugs work only because they body already has in place receptors for those drugs, and we only have to receptors because the body has a use for them—or for something so like them that these imitations can pick the locks of the native receptors. (Not all the chemicals the body produces are good for the body in all situations or in any amounts. But exploring this well-known fact will only lead us from the path. And we have such a weakness for striking off at every turn.)
We do we listen to music? Why do we crave sex and pizza? Why do we play or watch baseball? Or ride roller coasters? Why do we sleep? Climb mountains and stare at stars? (This is an endless list.) Why do we do anything we enjoy and then do it again and again and forever? One way to answer all these questions is simple: to feed our addictions. The music we enjoy releases dopamine. Probably everything we enjoy releases dopamine. I don’t know the physiology, the names of all natural chemicals, but it’s clear that we do these things to release these chemicals which we call “the experience of pleasure.”
Happiness is an addiction. Break the shell of the word. Addictions are not bad. They’re not good either. Neither good nor bad any more than a hammer is good or bad. Good for something. Good when useful. Just an object in itself, wood and steel. Most of our life is the balancing of addictions. Learning new things, experiencing new things—whether that is a new kind of music (because you will come to enjoy any kind of music if you let yourself) or a new food or an activity that was formerly anathema to you (math, poetry, sports)—is the creation of new addictions. Addictions tie us to earth, to our lives, to life. What is life but the managing of our addictions?
That would be a good round period on which to conclude this meditation. But I’d rather leave it with this:
It was widely thought at the start of what we like to call the Romantic era that our addictions were more than this—not that would have dreamed of using that language. Our feelings and emotions opened pathways into being it was thought. I’m not convinced we have to absolutely give up on that idea. Whatever the divine might be if it has any connection to the material, running through materiality like breeze or a melody or a hinted meaning, then it seems most likely that we would experience it in our pre-linguistic (or is it extra-linguistic?) being before we would in any other part of ourselves, before we would think it in language or conclude it in logic or find it in math. That doesn’t mean—contra Lucas—that we can “trust our feelings,” since feelings are as likely to lead us to heroin as Bach, but that we may nonetheless also, like Romantic poets (and other artists) take them seriously. Life may yet be more than the quest for the healthful addictions of the dying body.