The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Of course in this we can recognize the chaos of denial, rationalization, and outright lying that is often involved in addiction. Just ask a spouse or family member of an addict. One of the first things to go when addiction rears its ugly head is honesty. Along with this, another thing to go is clarity … things become confused and jumbled. You’re not sure what to believe.

But Hammerschlag is talking about something that’s bigger in our world than just a problem that occurs in certain relationships. It’s pervasive in our society. I hesitate to bring up examples because it’s all over the place. Exaggeration, distortion, spin, half-truths. And we do it to ourselves too: we deny what we are feeling, we refuse to honestly face the truth about other people in our lives, and we refuse to face the truth about ourselves.

One of the gifts — and evidence — of recovery is emotional and spiritual health. And essential for emotional and spiritual health is the opposite of B.S.: living with rigorous honesty. It’s also living with a sense of clarity: clarity about what we think, what we feel, what’s happening in our relationships, etc. And finally, it’s living with humility. It’s being comfortable and secure enough in your own being that you don’t feel the need to embellish or spin things to make yourself look better than you are. It’s being okay with “what is” and not worrying about what others think of you.

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