What Are You Addicted To?

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TEDx never fails me. My seduction of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, hosted by Brazil in Rio de Janeiro (informally abbreviated as Rio+20) as a 20-year follow-up to the ground-breaking 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development hosted in the same city, officially began at the independently organized, TEDx Rio+20 event. TEDx orchestrated a thought-provoking production of fully planned unique content and design at the Rio de Janeiro headland Forte de Copacabana on the 11 and 12 of June. The highlighted event on Human Power ended on the luring topic “Chaos to Order”.

The Hungarian born and Canadian physician, Dr. Gabor Maté, who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction, took us through the intricacies and complications of an addict and noted it is a myth that drugs by themselves are addictive. Dr. Maté stated we all have some sort of emptiness and we find a way to deal with it. But what makes one person more susceptible than another to fill a void from the outside? Meat is not addictive, but to some people it is; television is not addictive, but to some people it actually is; shopping is not addictive, but to my friends in New York City who will remain nameless, shopping is also addictive. There are many ways to fulfill emptiness and everyone fills that void differently.

First, the emptiness, according to Dr. Maté, always reverts back to what a person did not receive as a young child, as childhood significantly shapes the mental and physical health. Dr. Maté perceives endorphins – the endogenous morphine like substances that function like neurotransmitters – as our own natural painkillers that make possible the experience of love and attachment. Without love and connection as a young child, he added, those important brain circuits do not develop. Consequently, addicts use chemicals [read: drugs] to fill their void, as they act on their endorphin system and make their feeling of emptiness vanish. As they feel gratification and escape their own imprisonment, so do they feel loved and normal again. But now, their brain becomes increasingly susceptible to doing drugs and the addiction begins. No matter how vibrant and confident you may feel under the influence of a substance, your body suffers. This detrimental cycle of trauma, suffering, stress, and terror is subconsciously passed on from one generation to the next.

Rio+20 and the insatiable addiction to power

As countries continue to prepare for the negotiations at Rio+20 this month, Dr. Maté gave an analogy between the addiction of drugs to addiction of power. He argued the drug addict injects harm to the well-being of oneself and the power addict injects harm to the well-being of the environment, as demonstrated by the dangerous habit of oil and consumer dependency. Where does this addiction to power perpetrating the well-being of the environment come from? Is it the addiction to acquisition and wealth?  Dr. Maté researched historic figures in power: Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Napoleon, for example, and tried to understand what drove their obsession. His discovery – they desired to fill the void of being outsiders. They had no sense of self without feeling a transfer of power, because to them, there is no end to the desire of going further.

Dr. Maté reminded us to not wait for the people in power to change things for us; they are not going to change unless we act. For those in the United States, this could easily begin by voting in November and changing some personal [bad] habits. In a technologically charged world filled with robots, how easily we forget we are human beings and that human nature is generous and community-minded. If we find that light within, Dr. Maté stressed, we will find the wisdom and creativity inside ourselves to be kinder to human nature and not only control people, but teach them, to share knowledge with them, and educate one another. Just like TEDx fashion. As we are anxious for the outcome of Rio+20, I leave you with a recycled phrase, but one that is a great reminder: it is not the power from the outside, but the power from within.

6 thoughts on “What Are You Addicted To?

  1. I loved this post! I thought it was a creative look at the type of people that end up coming to conferences like Rio and having their thoughts, ideas and voices heard. Its not something we often think about I don’t think. So Thank you for sharing this.

  2. I could personally not agree more that things are not going to change, unless we act. Just this morning I attended a panel discussion with some UN delegates and, time and again, find that the political process is incredibly slow. In the technology-empowered world we live in, the barriers to act are incredibly low — we just got to do it; each on in his own way, but always with a positive impact in mind!

  3. Hi Sunserae,

    thanks so much for your post. I never asked myself before what I am addicted to. Sadly enough to confess, I think I am a bit addicted to work, as I don’t do much more than that lately. Of course, that’s not my only addiction (fortunately enough). I am addicted to my freedom, but this is not so positive as it should be…

    Sandra Waddock, the Professor I interviewed a few weeks ago, also raised this point of addiction to power. The problem with power is that it makes people blind, and they are not interested to get out of their comfort zone in order to make a change (generally).

    Now, I wonder, we are still young, idealistic and have lots of energy to try and change things. Don’t you think that in the future we will be blinded by power as well? I don’t know if at some point in time an external force sucks your energy and makes your ideals vanish… How to avoid this?

    Looking forward to reading more addicts’ confessions!

  4. The expression “drunk on power” is a very common one but it’s really interesting to see that there is actually some sort of relationship. I’d love to know if Dr Maté had any suggestions as to how we could break a dependency on power…possibly a rehab centre for those bent on destroying the environment?!

  5. As a self-confessed addict, it is very difficult for us to break out of the molds that society has created. The biggest addiction that I have seen throughout my life is that to money. Over time, we have placed great value on pieces of paper that intrinsically have no value, yet we spend our lives working to generate more and more ‘paper’ to secure our futures. I love the reference in Sunserae’s post to the inherent goodness of our nature, which is true. However, our ‘goodness’ becomes clouded in our quest for more paper, as we justify behavior that is inherently unjust and undignified.

    In response to Aishwarya’s question on how to break dependency, the power lies within. You have to make a conscious decision for yourself irrespective of those around you…invariably, if your decisions lead to positive results, you become an inspiration for others to make similar changes. In this way, we lead by action and become part of a movement that actually changes old behavior patterns. This change will not come quickly, nor easily, but it needs to come.

  6. What a wonderful first assignment, covering a lecturer whose message seems to capture the very essence of Rio+20. Dr. Mate’s thought provoking premise about addiction, whether to a drug or power, the addict’s failings, and the resulting harm to us all, sounds fascinating. How we can turn possible harm into something more positive is a challenge well worth taking. And as you surmised, the power to do so may be within each of us. Great observations.

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