Evolution, suffering, and addiction — nobody said it was easy

The relationship between addiction and emotional anguish — primarily anxiety and depression — is well known. When we look for root causes of addiction, we inevitably ask why so many people are suffering. Here I reflect a bit, and link to a mind-blowing video, on suffering and evolution.

anxious guyWhy is it so hard? Why is there so much suffering, in the world, in ourselves? That question comes up all the time, especially among us addicts (recovered or not). We’re not the only ones. We just tried to find a way out through the back door. The proportion of people in the Western World (e.g., the US) who suffer from anxiety and/or depression (and related conditions) is astronomical. And for today’s young people it seems to be getting worse, though that conclusion is conflated with changes in the way people communicate with each other and with mental health professionals.

DarwinOne simple answer is that we evolved from physical matter to become the unfathomably sensitive and intelligent creatures we are. And evolution doesn’t concern itself with suffering. In fact suffering (struggle, loss, and death) is a big part of what drives it.

This question, always cycling though my dialogues with people in this community and others in my life, came back to me a few days ago when I received a long, detailed email from someone I don’t Japanese internmentknow, someone who has struggled on and off with addiction throughout his life. He told me of his childhood traumas and hardships, and of the brutal treatment received by his parents in an internment camp during World War II who, as a result, were never able to give him what he needed as a child. He sees himself as someone who has to struggle and persevere just to get through each day, fending off anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and meaninglessness — you know, the usual quartet of background singers.

What could I say to him? Advice? Meditation…sure, but he’s tried that and it hasn’t worked for him. Therapy? Tried that too. In a nutshell, there was nothing at all I could say to help him. I recalled my own explosive introduction to utter, fundamental helplessness, an experience on ayahuasca that I tried to convey to you in this post. Accepting one’s helplessness might be a way toward struggling less, or even giving up the struggle, and just living in the floating leafpresent, accepting the ebb and flow of forces that sometimes bring happiness but undoubtedly bring suffering and lead, inevitably, to loss and death. And certainly these forces are intermingled with the disconnection, competition, and often cruelty that we face from other humans who are, when you stop and think about it, just as caught up in their own struggles to survive from day to day and hold onto a bit of happiness.

You just want to scream: it’s so unfair!

sibling rivalryBut there are other ways to think about it. Fairness is a construction we learn at around age five, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the natural universe. It’s just a social norm, a code for resolving petty rivalries. It’s no more relevant to nature than tea ceremonies or Facebook.

homo evolvingIn fact, we are lucky as hell to be here at all. And suffering is just part of the process that brought us here and that continues to give us the chance to evolve and, hopefully, to grow more intelligent, compassionate, and beautiful.

I’m in San Francisco now, mainly to spend time with my father, who just turned ninety. He’s had a rapid but luckily temporary decline in cognitive function. He’s doing better. I’m going home soon. On my way here, I bought a book called Dancing with Elephants. It’s about how to be present, engaged, and even happy in the face of terminal illness, oncoming dementia, and — you guessed it — the inevitability of death. Yeah, cheery stuff. But it’s written by a Huntington'sguy with Huntington’s Disease, a guy who is presently in the process of losing everything, his body and his mind. And he’s talking about connecting and accepting and loving. He’s nowhere close to despair. I’m only partway through and I can’t yet recommend it confidently, but take a look if you like. There are certainly gems of wisdom in the book, and even the fact that this guy can think this way and write this way is astonishing and uplifting.

Anyway, I have nothing more to say on the subject of suffering. But I want you to watch this video, especially if you’ve not seen it before. I recently rediscovered it, and I think it is wonderful. There is so much in it, complexity and symmetry, perspective, and a vastly comprehensive view of who and what we are. But there’s also a simple message: evolution isn’t easy, suffering and death are always with us, but there is tremendous beauty in how we got here and where we might continue to go.




43 thoughts on “Evolution, suffering, and addiction — nobody said it was easy

  1. Mike Searles June 15, 2017 at 6:14 am #

    Very heartfelt message Marc. Thank you for posting the video link too and best comforts for your father.

    • Terry June 15, 2017 at 6:17 pm #

      The human condition is contradictory – always present is fear and primal urges and suffering and against that is the human ability to be compassionate, loving and happy. In my own journey out of alcoholism I could not come to terms with the notion presented that a higher power would save me because my thought was and still is that such a power could then have prevented the suffering I endured if it was so powerful and then why did that higher power not do that. just as I still ask why this planet is still full of hate and wars and hunger and pain. I once had a philosophy essay question I always have remembered – “If God was all knowing (omniscient), all powerful (omnipotent) and all seeing, why then is there suffering in the world” – it was a very good question and still is. My answer was that I had gotten myself into the mess I was in and only I could get myself out of it, I simply had to assume responsibility for my life and my happiness and not expect it to be a given. I now realise all humans suffer that then also questions todays focus upon trauma as being causative in addiction but that does not answer the question why then do not all humans fall to pieces and get stoned every day – some prosper from the stress, others fall and remain weak all their lives – resilience is very interesting and a key to personal survival. in my view addicts are far more resilient than they have been told they are. We are not powerless.

      • matt June 16, 2017 at 5:00 am #

        So true. We need social connection and purpose. Addiction seems to redirect connection to our relationship with a feeling, a thing, and drain any sense of purpose…and drive to be empowered out of our powerlessness.

        Powerlessness and choice are not at odds. They’re in order.

        • Terry June 18, 2017 at 5:59 pm #

          addicts for want of a better word develop their closest relationship with their drug(s) or other habitual behaviours and this is a replacement for relationship with humans. many I work with and in my own experience have difficulty connecting with other humans usually due to a lack of confidence and self esteem brought on by any number of different reasons. Its all about relationship. alone we often can have no purpose – addicts either start out alone or end up that way and as a society we ostracise them even more. Gabor Mate talks of this.

          • matt June 19, 2017 at 1:46 pm #


            I heard the MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle on the radio giving a Harvard commencement address a few weeks ago. She works on how technology is changing how we relate to each other as humans. In it she had a throw away line while making another point that really relates to what you’re talking about here, and to addiction in general.

            “If you do not learn to be alone, you will learn to be lonely”

            How lonely is it to have your most salient relationship to be with a substance or an activity? We have to find a way to feel okay in our own skin.

            • Terry June 19, 2017 at 7:40 pm #

              Exactly Matt – and that is what I eventually found – now I am not an active alcoholic – I still have social anxiety though and trouble connecting but I am very comfortable with myself and accept my loneliness. While that is not ideal, all people need other people, loneliness now is not the monster it once was. I gave up intimate relationships with women because they would put me in such a state I would invariable relapse when things went wrong, the cost was too high. The price often of addiction is loneliness both in active using and in so called recovery but it is something I can live with as being dead is the other option I had.

  2. matt June 15, 2017 at 6:53 am #

    The Buddha said it quite a while ago. Basically…”Dude…this is all suffering…deal” Once we accept that that is what we are working with…that’s the baseline…everything else is easier. Motivation out of suffering is what got us here, and it’s also what’s destroying us. That’s just the way it is. The less we have the easier it is to see, but this is life in the relative world. Things in opposition: black/ white, subject/object, birth /death, have/have not. It doesn’t mean anything– until we give it meaning.

    I think your point about fairness is important in thinking about addiction. One of the corollaries of fairness is honesty, which is also a social construct that we learn at an early age. And from honesty and fairness come trust. Honesty is so important in recovery because we lose our ability to be honest when we’re active, and we have to relearn it, literally. Once we’re honest, we can be honest with ourselves again. Once we’re honest with ourselves, we can trust ourselves again. If there is anything that is “recovered” in “recovery” it is honesty and trust in ourselves.

    • Marc June 15, 2017 at 10:06 am #

      Hi Matt. As for the Buddha, right on. He was certainly on my mind while I wrote this. And I quite like the way you put it: “Deal.” I also like your point that it’s the motivation to get away from suffering that both got us here (as in evolution) and is destroying us (as in frustration, anxiety, and addiction…if I understand you. That’s pretty much the crux of it. But — and I like this part too — it makes the addict look like the “noble savage” — we are just trying to put suffering behind us, using whatever comes to hand. Problem is, it becomes habit forming.

      Please see my reply to Maia, below, which is actually a reply to both of you about fairness.

  3. Jennifer June 15, 2017 at 6:57 am #

    Best wishes for your dad. The video was comforting and pleasantly thought provoking. My take away – we belong!

    • Marc June 15, 2017 at 10:11 am #

      Thanks, Jennifer, for your good wishes and your take-away. That’s it: we belong! There’s a book called “At home in the universe” by Stuart Kauffman — [https://global.oup.com/academic/product/at-home-in-the-universe-9780195111309?cc=us&lang=en&]. A very cool book that shows how inevitable life is in the primordial chemical soup, due to one very powerful force of nature: not just natural selection, which can be so cruel, but also self-organization, the tendency for certain chemical interactions to become self-perpetuating (“auto-catalytic”) and achieve higher levels of complexity — like us.

      • Jennifer June 15, 2017 at 10:29 am #

        Thanks for the links! Yesterday Florida Govenor and Attorney General announced funding for longer term care for opioid addicts. Forward movement.

      • Karen T June 15, 2017 at 7:29 pm #

        Hahaha so that’s what we humans are – the product of complex, self-organizing and self-perpetuating chemical interactions. Cool.

  4. Kellie OConnor June 15, 2017 at 7:09 am #

    Always so happy to see an email from you in my inbox. Thank you for taking the time to write share with everyone. Much love to your Dad.

  5. Maia Szalavitz June 15, 2017 at 8:39 am #

    Yes, hope your Dad is doing better and sending regards!

    But totally disagree with you on fairness. Even nonhuman primates care about fairness (experimental data shows they will reject lettuce (or some other vegetable, can’t recall) in return for a stone if another monkey has been seen getting a more delicious grape. Toddlers recognize unfairness— it’s part of the biology of social species. Indeed, have you ever known a parent to teach a child “that’s not fair!!!” when a sibling gets something bigger or better? What parent would be insane enough to do that! It’s wired into our social brains and is deep in our psyche. It’s important for empathy. Seeing it as a meaningless social norm dismisses its role in allowing us to be kind and allowing social contact to relieve suffering. If we didn’t care about fairness, we’d pretty much all be sociopaths.

    • Marc June 15, 2017 at 10:35 am #

      Thanks, Maia. He is doing much better. I’m blown away by the life force working in him — indomitable till the end.

      Regarding fairness: your criticism and Matt’s, above, are…fair enough. I remember the research you mention. It’s true that learning to recognize differences in resources allotted to two related beings is fundamental, and not just to humans. And it can connect up with instinctive altruism, which is a good thing for all concerned. But after raising five (count em: five!) children, I imagine I’ve said “not everything is fair!” many more times than its converse.

      Kids use the idea of fairness to make sure and get what they think they deserve. We use it as a code for, as you guys say, good stuff like honesty, empathy, and compassion. I didn’t mean that fairness is irrelevant to our functioning. You’re right, it’s critically important to being “good” people. (yes, I’m a leftist)

      But when we look at the plight of modern humans and compare it to what-if alternatives, the concept becomes meaningless. Nature truly doesn’t care. (I’m not bad-mouthing nature: it’s got its own agenda, sure).

      I (and most of my friends) are reading or have read Sapiens, that recent book on the evolution of homo sapiens. It’s so clear, perceptive, and troubling. It makes you think about, for example, the last Neanderthal man, woman, or child, breathing his or her last few breaths, about 30,000 years ago, starving perhaps. And boom! the whole species is extinct. So many possible pathways in evolution. The pathway we’re on (like the person who won the last of 5,000 coin tosses in a coin-toss tournament) is lucky, certainly not fair. So when we judge the overall human condition against alternatives — shouldn’t it be different? Shouldn’t it be better? — that’s what doesn’t wash.

  6. Helen June 15, 2017 at 9:38 am #

    Thank you for sharing video.
    Kindest regards for you and your father.

    • Marc June 15, 2017 at 10:38 am #

      Thank you. I will tell him about all these good wishes. It will warm his heart!

  7. Morgan Machen June 15, 2017 at 9:58 am #

    I heard a doctor on NPR the other day talking about a new concept that mental illness can be caused by an auto-immune brain attack. His name is Craig Shimasaki and he mentioned that Moleculara Labs offers a test, here’s an excerpt:

    ‘The panel consists of five tests. Four of these tests provide results that are expressed as a titer, or final dilution, at which an endpoint reaction was observed on an Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) format. These tests measure circulating levels of autoantibodies directed against specific neuronal antigens, including: Dopamine D1 receptor (DRD1), Dopamine D2L receptor (DRD2L), Lysoganglioside GM1, and Tubulin. Autoimmune antibodies that bind to these targets may interfere or potentially lead to a blocking or stimulation of the function of these antigen. This, in turn, may trigger movement and neuropsychiatric disorders, along with OCD and abnormal neurologic behavior’.

    • Marc June 15, 2017 at 10:40 am #

      The body is SO complicated. I’ve read recently that certain kinds of microbes in the gut correspond with first-onset psychosis. I do imagine that all this stuff is related. It’s the cause-effect chain that remains so challenging.

  8. Karen T June 15, 2017 at 8:58 pm #

    I wish these pages had a “like” button; so many great comments here. As well as the original post! Marc has this talent for bringing intellect and imagination together, prompting sometimes dizzying shifts in perspective.

    The video took me back to the time when I realized that I may be more than my emotions and my ego, and the Universe may be more than I can perceive or imagine with my human senses, feelings and intellect. I had just learned meditation, and started studying Buddhist teachings. When I learned meditation, I lost much of my desire to get “out of it” (which I did, not with a chemical habit, but by losing myself in relationships with narcissists).

    Why do we assume the Universe must minimize suffering, must be fair and good? Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, that joy and sorrow are inseparable –

    “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
    And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
    And how else can it be?
    The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. . . ”

    Ideals of fairness and goodness are necessary in the functioning of a society, which is why they arose in the small subset of social mammals on planet Earth. These ideals are not something absolute; different individuals and different cultures often disagree on what is fair or good.

    • Matt June 16, 2017 at 6:22 am #

      …or shame…another evolutionarily adaptive emotion

    • Elise June 17, 2017 at 5:06 am #

      Like 🙂

      • Matt June 17, 2017 at 11:20 am #

        …or empathy!!

    • Marc June 28, 2017 at 9:48 am #

      Great comment, Karen. And thanks. Now we’ve got Gibran, Darwin, and the Buddha on the same page. Not a bad lineup at all.

      I love that video too. I think I responded to someone else about the book, At Home in the Universe, which shows how biological evolution wasn’t just a lucky day on planet Earth, but the molecular soup we come from was highly likely to start to auto-catalyze and build more complex molecules, DNA being an eventual outcome. So tracing our origins back to the origins of the universe isn’t just an analogy or a pretty picture, it’s a story of a process that had to happen, by all odds, just because that’s the way the universe is put together.

      • Karen T June 28, 2017 at 4:46 pm #

        Aha – so it IS all part of God’s plan! I’ll have to write and tell Sister Monica. She’s a Catholic nun I met in Australia, an important spiritual teacher to me.

        I wonder what Richard Dawkins and the “rationalists” would make of this? 🙂

        • Marc June 29, 2017 at 1:18 pm #

          Well I don’t see any incompatibility with rationalism….except maybe the lack of imagination of certain rationalists… If God is there and involved, I don’t think She needed a plan to create life, other than a brilliant starting point: physics, chemistry, and natural selection. But then, maybe consciousness was inevitable…if not exactly planned.

          Still, I think you and I share a sense of wonderment at the symmetry and beauty that’s present in the universe and the mystery underlying it.

          • Karen T June 29, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

            🙂 🙂 🙂

  9. Beth June 15, 2017 at 10:29 pm #

    Not sure if the man who emailed you is reading these comments, but if he isn’t familiar with attachment trauma/disorder, he might want to look into that. Peter Levine (Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past among others) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma) are two places to start.

    • Matt June 17, 2017 at 11:42 am #

      Yes I think for prevention and treatment we should look to early development. This youtube of Allan Schore about the state of attachment theory isn’t specifically about addiction, but it sure sounds like it has an influence…

    • dor September 7, 2017 at 11:03 pm #

      Everyone in the world has had trauma in one form or another, and some worse than others. From the moment we leave the birth canal, we enter the world with a slap on the butt from the doctor to experience crying pain in order to clear our lungs. And so it begins. Could it be possible that addicts are just wired differently, and process life’s struggles in a different way than others? Perhaps it’s in their DNA. I’m really not buying the trauma theory. Every addict is trying to find out what their trauma was if they can’t remember it. Some do have serious trauma (like childhood rape), but most don’t. And I’m sure most who were sexually abused do not become addicts.

      • Marc September 8, 2017 at 9:39 am #

        Well I do buy the trauma account, though broadly defined. For me it was two years of boarding school, bullying, homesickness and depression. No, not childhood rape — that’s extreme — but simply emotional malaise that I could not cope with successfully. These things are predisposing factors. They don’t “determine” addiction, they simply predict it with higher probability. Add a few of them together and you get a fairly loaded formula.

        As for doctors and being slapped on the butt — point taken. But must the slapping go on for years?

        • dor September 8, 2017 at 10:52 am #

          Yes, I understand trauma is subjective. But the key phrase you used is “I could not cope with successfully”. So my question is what makes one person able to cope, and another not? What makes one person use substances to feel better, and then regulate their use and another unable to put the substance down? Just wondering if it’s genetic. Both my grandparents died of alcoholism in their early 40’s. My father is a recovered alcoholic. Out of my 2 brothers, one is a recovered alcoholic, and myself and other brother don’t have addictions. Someday we may know the scientific answer. And if it’s not genetic, then we can teach our children how to cope better, because like you said, life is filled with suffering. But it is also filled with joy.

          • Marc September 9, 2017 at 5:48 am #

            Genes never act in isolation. What would they act on if not the environment? Environments can be shaped, and parents are best suited to direct that shaping. Please see the email I sent you.

  10. Cheryl June 16, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

    Thank you Marc. I enjoy reading your posts on my email. About 9 yrs ago me and my addiction to drugs led to the loss of my RN license, marriage, custody of my children. With 3 Felonies and a little money I got from the divorce my life sucked. I’m always trying to figure myself out. I’ve been to counseling, AA and all the other A’s, church. Life still sucks. That’s all. In Florida a being a felon is a black mark affecting g housing, employment. How long must I suffer? lol. I’ve seen both worlds, had a lot, have near nothing.

    • Karen T June 16, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

      You have insight. Keep reading Marc’s blogs, and the comments on them. There are some people who frequent this page, who have made something out of “nothing”.

    • Marc June 28, 2017 at 9:56 am #

      Cheryl, that truly does suck. I’m not too pleased with some of the policies your country has devoted to making one-time addicts suffer so much more than they already have. Living through bleak circumstances is, I guess, like living through a war. The world has a tendency to correct itself and maybe even progress…but it takes a lot of time, and many of us don’t get there at all. Be a survivor first. Then…try building on that.

  11. Cheryl June 16, 2017 at 7:08 pm #

    “Nobody said it was easy”. Words from a Coldplay song.

  12. tim Greenwood June 17, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    Not much to say. Just….Thanks for the meditation and thoughts on suffering, reality and all the struggles we all face Marc. Beautiful video. Loved the last image that compares the single brain cell to the universe. Will certainly share with others. A friend shared something profound yesterday from his teacher Paramahansa Yogananda. Not sure how it fits in all this but it was just that one of the biggest crimes we can commit against ourselves and the universe is dwelling on our mistakes – just acknowledge them, learn from them and move on. Not sure why – but this thought really resonates with me on my own journey. All the best in supporting your father as you are able.

    • Marc June 28, 2017 at 9:52 am #

      Hi Tim, not much to say either except that, as I mentioned in an email, I like that Yogananda message very much. In fact addiction is a paradigm case of dwelling on one’s mistakes.

      Maybe your words could be helpful to Cheryl, above. Although it’s hugely more difficult NOT to dwell on your mistakes when your life has been demolished by them and the heaps of damage are piled up all around you. Still, that’s what you have to do.

  13. Terry June 28, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Marc, loved the article. Best wished to you and your Dad. I couldn’t survive without the comments. And you do need a “like” button…..

  14. Carlton June 29, 2017 at 9:02 am #

    Marc, your sentence here is refreshingly non-judgmental in the recovery field:

    “We just tried to find a way out through the back door.”

    Seeing it this way can allow people to realize their original intent may have been very common-sensical, rather that some devious desire or a character-defect of some sort.

    This can help alleviate the unhelpful shame and guilt that can hobble and distract a person from regaining their freedom from an addiction.

    Ultimately, strength or self-control is not the reason a large percentage of people do not return, or continue to rely on an addiction.

    It is because of a major realization.

    Discovering for yourself that the “back door” is really not a back door, can be a Life-changing Realization.

    • Marc June 29, 2017 at 1:11 pm #

      Hi Carlton. Thanks for noticing. I really do believe that people in addiction have simply tried a different path to the goals all humans strive for: a sense of safety, belonging, agency, excitement, and…well, fun. The fact that the path is strewn with obstacles is really no more than bad luck…It is not a rational basis for contempt, stigma, and self- or other loathing.

  15. Norma July 10, 2017 at 5:18 am #

    I love this article. It’s really profound and enthusiastic to read. The video is a great bonus too. Great article Marc!

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