193. "To Just Say No Leaves Vacuum That Still Yearns to Be Filled" Atlanta Journal-Constitution, (December 29, 1988).


The campaign to convince Americans, especially the young, to refrain from using controlled substances, is negative in focus. It admonishes, threatens and demands self-restraint.

Negative, too, is the drive against promiscuous sex, the progenitor of AIDS (“Best abstain completely”). The growing pressure against smoking and heavy drinking rounds out the list of new and renewed social taboos.

These admonitions ignore numerous psychological, sociological and other studies of the reasons people indulge themselves. We cannot simply unplug one mode of gratification without replacing it with some positive source of satisfaction.

Some observers hold that people use controlled substances, alcohol, nicotine and obsessive sex to soothe their general anxieties or to manage specific stresses. Others emphasize the role of conforming to peers and subcultures in promoting whatever behavior is “in.” Still others believe that precisely because the substances at issue are forbidden fruits, they are attractive to adolescents and many others who have a rebellious or an “alienated” streak.

It follows that if one takes away whatever people use to tranquilize themselves, anxiety and stress persist; peer pressure remains; and the alienated look for news ways to act out their disenchantment, searching for new forbidden substances, symbols and rituals.

Hence, to just say “no” leaves a vacuum, a thirst, that still yearns to be quenched. Without positive guidance from new sources, users generally, return to their familiar, often addicting, modes of behavior. Indeed, the paucity and paleness of positive outlets for whatever drives these people, is a major reason negative ones are son infrequently given up.

Some may say, there is no shortage of pro-social possibilities: let “them” jog, play bridge, find a job, become involved in voluntary activities or in their church or synagogue. The trouble is that, as a rule, these low-key activities do not supply the psychological high, the intense peer camaraderie, and the symbols of independence (if not defiance), that the tabooed activities offer.

To be able to say “no” on so many fronts requires a person to say “yes” to something in a higher key. An extreme example is provided by Black Moonies, and other such cults. Converts find it easy to say “no” because their lives have been filled with intense meaning.

A close look a Alcoholic Anonymous and other such groups, which are highly successful in overcoming various addictions, shows that they provide more than a tightly knit web of social support; they offer a philosophy of life, often containing strong religious or spiritual elements, that instills the person with a deep sense of direction, identity, meaning and self-worth.

Our society probably cannot provide, en masse, so-called charismatic or messianic appeal that produces an intense high on a large scale - it only comes at the peak of war or during revolutions.

One reason left-leaning theoreticians have called for “perpetual” revolutions is because even in societies founded by zealots and activists, enthusiasm tends to die down as the routine and mundane set in, and with this setting comes the quest for new highs.

Today Russians and Chinese find themselves enthusiastically pursuing consumer goods. However, most Americans have been on this bandwagon for so long, that it has lost much of its appeal for our society.

Americans used to find, and many still do, a “high” through their careers and/or financial success. True, one hallmark of capitalism is that it celebrates the individual, each pursuing his or her own project, rather than viewing people as foot soldiers in some collective march, or as enlisted in the service of some societal virtue.

Success, however, is a tricky value. Substance abuse is rampant among those who fail - a failure often due to factors over which they have little or no control, ranging from rapid technological changes that render their skills obsolete to poor training at school. And even among those who run the maze quickly and well, the intense competition - “I ‘kill’ for an eighth (of a point),” says a Wall Street trader - leaves in its wake slews of people anxious to manage or hide from their stress.

There is no easy answer for a predominantly secular, market-oriented society’s quest for sources of intense meaning. “Just say no” may sound like good policy, but until we find additional socially acceptable yet compelling values, sets of meanings and activities to say “yes” to, to become deeply engaged in, few will say no to drugs, booze, and our long list of similar afflictions.

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