Are We Nearing Rock-Bottom?

Experience with alcoholics has established the principle that an alcoholic does not change until he/she hits “rock-bottom.” In practical terms, this means that the negative consequences from the drinking exceed the pleasurable feelings.

Rock-bottom is relative. There are “high-bottoms” and “low-bottoms.” A high-bottom means that alcohol has not caused loss of family, job loss, or serious physical diseases. Low-bottom means that the person has suffered serious losses. Jim C. was a low-bottom alcoholic. He lost his family, his job, his home, his car, and sold his blood to get money for booze. A person who has hit bottom feels that he must change, because he feels there is no way to go but up.

Alcoholics are not the only people who refuse to change their behavior until they hit rock-bottom. This is true not only of individuals but also of society as a whole. Humanity has had its ups and downs. It is only natural to pursue pleasure, but as a rule, people have not conceptualized pleasure as anything other than physical pleasure and contentment. But there is another component to a human being other than one’s physical body, and that is the human spirit. InHappiness and the Human Spirit, I defined the spirit as being the sum total of all the traits that are unique to a human being and that do not exist in animals. I have argued that regardless of how much physical pleasure a person may have, if one does not provide for one’s spiritual fulfillment, one cannot be happy.

In my eighty years, I have observed some radical changes in human life. I think that the changes that have occurred in these eighty years are much greater than those that occurred over the previous millennium and perhaps over the previous two millennia.

Let’s look at what has happened just in my lifetime. In my childhood, in the pre-antibiotic and pre-immunization days, the average life expectancy in the U.S, was about fifty. Infant mortality was high and childhood diseases were rampant. Pneumonia was a common killer. Every major city had a tuberculosis sanitarium. A backache in summer was feared as polio. Transportation was difficult. It was a sixty-hour trip from New York to Los Angeles and four weeks to Israel. People worked from dawn to dusk in unpleasant surroundings, doing hard, physical work to feed their families. Laundry was done with a scrub board and hung out to dry. Furnaces were coal fed, and when the heat was sweltering, there was no respite. Long distance calling was prohibitive. Milk was delivered by horse and wagon, as was ice for the ice-box.

If someone in the 1930’s, my childhood years, had been told that one day the average life expectancy will be eighty, that antibiotics will cure pneumonia, that all tuberculosis sanitaria will be closed, that one will travel from New York to Los Angeles in five hours and to Israel in ten hours, that there will be instant communication everywhere by cell phones, that the work week will be 37 ½ hours, and that working conditions will be pleasant (with coffee breaks), with the work done by machines, that children will be immunized, that polio and smallpox would be a thing of the past, that there would be fast-food outlets, that the kitchen would have instant foods and microwave ovens, and that a push of a button will bring one’s home to a comfortable temperature on the most frigid or hottest days, that one could see friends and relatives around the globe and converse with them right from one’s living room—what would that person have said? In all likelihood, he would not have believed that this is possible. However, if he could imagine that this could ever come about, why, then humanity would have achieved the ultimate happiness. Mankind would have returned to the Garden of Eden.

I doubt that anyone sees our world today as the Garden of Eden. As science, medicine and technology began to make giant strides in the twentieth century, many people hoped that by eliminating all the hardships of life, mankind would be happy. But here we are, the beneficiaries of the marvels of science, medicine and technology, but depression and addiction are rampant. Billions of doses of antidepressants and tranquilizers are regularly consumed. The divorce rate is at an unprecedented high, and children are affected by the family dissolution. What is worse, we can no longer expect that science, medicine and technology can bring about happiness. Even full-wall High-Definition TV screens and the GPS that helps us find our way to our destination have not proven to be the key to happiness.

Ah, you will say, medicine will soon find the cure for cancer! This good news sends shivers through social planners. With the extended life expectancy that has already occurred, Medicare and Social Security are facing bankruptcy. When I made my first social security payment of $144/year, I shared the burden of providing for a social security recipient with seventeen other people. Today, this burden is borne by 2.6 people. As the aging population continues to increase, with more people living into their nineties, there is no way that the working class can carry this burden. We decry “pulling the plug on grandma,” but unfortunately, something like that is inevitable.

Inasmuch as the traditional saviors, science, medicine and technology, can no longer be expected to bring happiness to mankind, we have hit rock-bottom! Perhaps now, with our gratitude to science, medicine and technology notwithstanding, we will begin to look elsewhere for happiness.

Where shall we look for this? I cannot answer that for everyone. Every thinking person should seek the answer for oneself. I know only that the rock-bottom phenomenon makes the alcoholic realize that he can no longer find comfort in alcohol, and he must look elsewhere. If we realize that we have hit a rock-bottom by pursuing pleasure and comfort instead of searching for true happiness, we, too, may recover.