A Small Essay on Despair

Concerning the Nature of Addiction

Note: since writing this essay I have changed my stance about some of these conclusions, and have come to notice some glaring flaws in this argument. Still, for the sake of having some content on this website, and because I think it's still an okay read, I'll keep it up for now. (April 14, 2021)


This is a rough attempt to understand and come to terms with the notion of addiction, using my own words. I do not care religions and sciences have solved and understood this problem before; this is, in the end, a way to sort my thoughts out more than anything. I merely wish to think about these things myself. I am sharing this here on my website because it perhaps may be of interest to someone else.

The root of all despair may perhaps be centered in a basic idea: that there is a discrepancy between what one feels and what actually happens in the world. To be more precise and proactive: between what one feels or wishes for, and what one actually does.

In this current society, most people deal with the following situation: they want to do something, but in fact do something else. Oftentimes they are forced to do so: say, an artist that wishes to paint all day long and express themselves, but they must work at a shitty job in order to feed themselves. Between these two things one can say there's a gap, a discrepancy between what one wants and what one does:

Wants |---------Gap---------| Actions

This gap can be said to be the root of all addictions. A person that is content has as small a gap as possible, either because they are relieved of wants (say, through the application of Buddhist doctrine) or because they have managed to achieve their wants through their actions, and are now satisfied (say, someone that wished for companionship and now finds themselves in a loving relationship.) In a society of competition, though, it's by definition impossible for all people to achieve their wants: through the indoctrination of ideology, most people desire the same scarce objects, which, by their own nature are insufficient to satisfy the desires of all people (indeed, the communist idea argues that scarcity is merely artificial under capitalist conditions, and that in fact there is more than plenty to satisfy all; for this argument, though, I'll only consider the society as it stands, and not how it could or should be.)

Given that most people have to deal with such a gap (leaving aside for now the problem of alienation and false wants), they must find ways of coping with this radical discrepancy in their existence. To cope is to either diminish the gap, briefly forget about the gap, or to overcome the existence of the gap altogether. Let us examine these solutions in order:

1. The diminution of the gap:

This is straightforward. One either reduces one's wants or one achieves in part or in whole their wants through their actions. It is, in a sense, the simplest do deal with it, because it remains strictly within the dynamic of the gap itself. Still, only the reduction of wants is lasting, for too often the achieving of a want leaves either empty ennui ("so, what do I do now?") or the production of a new want — rarely satisfaction.

2. The temporary erasure of the gap:

This is the easiest way to deal with the problem. To use as simple an example as possible, take a regular worker: indeed, they hate their job and really want to quit, but the presence of the weekend makes them tolerate their job a little bit longer. In that sense, even though one's job sucks (and therefore is unwanted), by being free from it for a couple of days on the weekends one is more capable of tolerating it. The problem, of course, remains; but its temporary absence frees the mind from its oppression, and one can therefore dream of the weekend as a sort of liberation, which makes life just a little bit more bearable. This is also where addictions lie: they are radical escapism from the gap, be it through behavior (gambling, sex) or through substances (alcohol, opium, etc.)

3. Overcoming the gap:

This is the acceptance of the perpetual existence of the gap, either by resignation or by discipline. By resignation one does what must be done because nothing else can be done — it's in a sense giving up while still doing things; by discipline one does what one does in spite of the gap, and in that sense the gap does not diminish — one merely becomes stronger, more tolerant to it.

Despite these internal differences, most ways of dealing with the gap end up with the same result: despite one's distaste for what must be done, one does it all the same. Still, the motivations should not be cast aside as mere chemical states of the mind: it does make a difference whether one does something out of principled resolve instead of out of mere resignation, even if the end result is the same (said thing gets done).

Now that we have established this basic scheme, we must be a bit more thorough with the concept of the gap: one, obviously, doesn't get wants or takes actions in a vacuum; clearly such things happen in a society — and a capitalist one at that. In that sense the gap is not always "organic", so to speak — as in someone who wishes to be a musician and to make their own music — but also "fabricated": one wants, needs, a car, a cellphone, a video game, etc. These commodities are what can be called fabricated needs through cultural/ideological indoctrination and through radical monopolies (Ivan Illich's very interesting idea.) In that sense, they are what can be called false wants — though their appearance is identical to that of true wants. True wants stem from the soul of the person, for the lack of a better word; they are as much a part of that individual's personality as their verbal quirks or temperaments (what the ancients called humors, which were decided by astrological influence, something completely outside the person's control, obviously.) Still, one mustn't be naive: insofar as we are in such a society, it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to distinguish "true" wants from "false" ones; therefore the distinction is only relevant in situations where one can meditate deeply about oneself, apart from this society.

Wants can be negative as well (negative in the philosophical sense): it's not just that one wants something (say, to express themselves through music), but also that one does not want to work a dead-end job or to go to war. One can just as well define wants by the absence of a displeasure — in the manner of the negative theologian. In that case they do not produce anything different (say, art), but merely disencumber the person from dead weight, produce not something which can be seen, but free the unseen towards its fulfillment.

Therefore, one has wants, both positive and negative, and both true and false ones. Given these feelings, one acts or not. The disciplined soldier, for example, goes over the top of the trenches even though he does not want it (he probably will die, after all). The boy with a crush does not reveal their feelings to their target of affection (or does and gets rejected — if he gets accepted, there is no gap, for his desire is fulfilled.) The gap that results from not following one's wants or not having one's desires fulfilled must be accounted for by the aforementioned methods. Still, the gap remains, and in extreme cases must be dealt with, for it becomes intolerable. The soldier drinks to forget his war crimes; the boy turns towards media consumption in order to forget his loneliness over not confessing or being rejected — these distractions work as the classical marxian "opium", the coping drug par excellence.

Insofar as these distractions are not destructive, it is fine; no one can demand someone else to face their own despair so nakedly and ruthlessly, after all. But sometimes these distractions become addictions and destroy the person's life, one day at a time. In such situations coping is no longer desirable, but must be overcome and left behind, and the causes of the gap must be faced in earnest.

How then, does that happen? First, one must obviously address the gap between their wants and their actions — what do they wish and what are they doing to achieve that? And if they don't know what they wish, then what do they wish not to do, and how can they stop doing that? Without addressing this fundamental gap, the addiction can never be truly left behind — even if does manage to stop drinking, for example, one is always threatened by relapse or mere replacement by a different addiction.

The overcoming of addiction is not so simple, though: addictions have inertia, and become permanently ingrained in one's actions, like a sediment deposited in the depths of one's mind; without iron discipline, there seems to be only one other way to get rid of them: blind obedience. (There is, though, a more elusive third option: sometimes, when the gap is sufficiently addressed, the addiction seems to fall off by itself, like a butterfly shedding its chrysalis, a natural process of maturation; most addictions, though, by their own extremely destructive nature, seem to preclude addressing one's wants in earnest, since so much time and energy is devoted to the maintaining of the addiction — such as acquiring drugs, playing games, looking for empty flings, etc.)

One does something either because they want or because they must. If the addiction is too strong and the person too weak, then they stop wanting to stop — that is, it feels too good to do it (or too bad to stop), even if they rationally desperately want to stop. Therefore they must be forced to stop, either by a discipline strong enough, or by an external force: the addict at the rehabilitation center is the most extreme example of that, but one does not need to go so far — alienation may suffice (alienation understood as the transferring of one's very real capacities to another person or to an object.) The voice of authority is powerful to many, ingrained in their deep subconscious by their parental figures, so, when exposed to such an authority, they defer their own capacities to such a figure — the psychologist or the self-help book being the most common examples. The strength of self-help, for example, is obviously not the bullshit peddled in the book, the empty platitudes and common sense nonsense spoken as if they were deep philosophical truths, but the fact that one follows it blindly: one alienates oneself so hard as to be "forced" to change by the book, as if it had mystical powers over the person. It is, in a sense, a form of relegated discipline, a discipline that only exists if imposed by an external means (which, obviously, ends up just being an internalized other, like a self-imposed Pavlov training.)

Insofar as one can overcome addictions, one must understand their situation. Behaviors never arise out of the æther, as if they were those curses imposed by Greek gods, but in response to very concrete situations: the abused kid that becomes reliant on empty sex; the battle-scarred soldier that becomes dependent on substances, etc. Concrete situations, if they do not change, make it impossible to truly overcome addiction. Overcoming addiction is not a matter of simply enduring a permanent cold turkey, as it is in the AA, but the stopping of a certain behavior, and of behaviors in general, as a coping mechanism. (It must be said that addictions seem to often be cases of fetishism, that is, the transformation of human and social relations into relations with things; loneliness is a social condition; cocaine is a chemical generator; addiction is not, most times, a property of the object cocaine, as if it had metaphysical powers where one snort of a crumb were to leave one crippled forever, but the place the cocaine has in fulfilling a social condition. It is evident, though, that in extremely powerful drugs such as crack, the effect may be so strong as to produce a new and permanent want on the person — the desire for a high — and then to become a problem in and out of itself. Most cases, though, seem not to be like that.) Since this world is hell, most people need something to cope with the gap, to endure existing at all — which does not necessarily result in addiction. Certain things, such as genuine human relationships or fulfilling artistic expression, make this world more bearable without needing reliance on commodities.

The more we are atomized and alienated and living through objects, such as screens, the more the gap widens. Some people do not mind it at all, and are perfectly content with an alienated life (can it even be called alienated in that case?); most, I'm certain, do. Given the current public health scenario, one can't really meet other people so easily; therefore we see the general rise of toxic, pointless, or otherwise self-destructive behavior.

If one wishes to overcome one's addictions during such a time I can only see iron discipline or acceptance as the ways out. Either way it's tremendously difficult, much more so than in so called normal times. If you, reader, are struggling, do not despair: most of us are as well. What matters is that you haven't truly given up. One only truly gives up when one dies — until then one can always do things, and always do things differently this time. If one is alive, they can try again. And again. And a million billion times until the sun burns out. If one sincerely tries, no effort is futile or wasted. Do not be harsh with yourself (or with others); but do not take yourself (or others) lightly either. What you do matters, if not to anybody else, then to yourself.

These are the conclusions I've reached after such an unusual year. I suppose it never truly gets easy, but it does, sometimes, feel that one is doing right. That's what matters in the end, and what I feel we must cherish.

May you have the strength to do what you must, or to accept your fate. Hope you the best.

December 2020,
- F.