What a treacherous age we live in. I was forcefully reminded of this recently when I heard from my dear friend Terry about her son’s drug overdose.
Terry and I met in college. The only thing she ever wanted to do was be a mom. She became a Christian in college and not much later married a guy from her church. Within a few years they began their family. The birth of their first son, Ethan, occasioned much rejoicing; there could not have been a more wanted, or a more loved, child. After Ethan, they welcomed three more babies. Terry and her husband worked hard to understand what was best for their children; they tried to be available and flexible, with clear rules and standards in their home. They wanted to teach their kids the truth of the Bible, and they focused on grace rather than legalism. They built a solid, Christian home. They also screwed up. It took them years to see how their own sinfulness subtlety played itself out in their family’s relationships. But they take their parenting seriously and try to do what is best for their kids.
Most of my friends are parents—and they are good parents. They care deeply about giving their children the appropriate amount of freedom and responsibility. They also understand their own frailties and weaknesses and are seeking to understand how their sinfulness hurts their children. When they lose their tempers, they apologize and work to understand their own parts in the conflict. They seek to model firmness and gentleness, so that their children can come to understand life truly and thus become equipped for adulthood. Parenting does not get much better than this.
So, what happened? Why is Ethan, like so many others, experimenting with drugs? And what can we, as parents, friends, and believers, do to help?
So many decisions face young men and women as they embark on adulthood. Questions of identity, faith, life partner, career, and lifestyle mark this impressionable life passage. Those who grow up in Christian homes often go through a process of deciding what of their parents’ faith can become their own and what cannot.
I remember well my own years of searching. I was convinced that my generation, by questioning all authority, had an incredible opportunity to rewrite all the hurts and mistakes of our forbears. I believed that the influences around me—the drug culture, the women’s movement, the sexual revolution—offered the chance for real progress. We were creating a new, progressive world where true freedom could flourish. And we were distancing ourselves from our parents’ bankrupt values of personal peace and affluence.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Those words exuded romanticism when I first heard the song made popular by Janis Joplin. A few years later, they rang painfully true. I had lived consistently with my beliefs and had come to the conclusion that nothing mattered. Nihilism is the logical conclusion of naturalistic philosophy that supposes a world cut off from the transcendent, a world in which time, chance, and matter are the sole determinants of our destiny.
Whether disguised as ideology or understood as escape, doing drugs points to a bigger issue. Ultimately, this choice is not about the drugs or the ideology. It is about resisting reality—the core of our sinfulness. We all do it in one form or another; we are adept at hiding from reality. It started in the Garden.
So then, the question before each of us is this: Will we choose to avoid reality at all costs, or will we, by the grace of God, ultimately come to accept it, even when it is painful? Will we decide to trust the God of the universe to care for us, at times by providing deprivation to point us to a promised Kingdom that is not yet here?
To live with the knowledge that incredible pain and confusion are part of this life is so hard. As a culture, we have cut ourselves off from any mooring beyond ourselves. As individuals, we can seek true Truth and be honest about our struggles. How much easier, though, to turn to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll to combat the alienation and despair, rather than face truth and reality. How much easier to turn to drinking too much, working too much, being busy too much, even worshipping too much, rather than know the pain of being human.
I see the dear children of my close friends and family adrift in this sea of confusion and despair, buying the incredible lies our culture is still selling: that drugs will set them free, that the only thing that matters is the moment, that drugs do not kill, and that adults are lame. My generation bought those lies, too. Some of us are trying to learn from the mistakes we made, but how do we tell kids what we have learned? No one could have told me anything, especially not my parents or my parents’ friends. I had to learn from incredibly painful experiences. And so will they.
But, I want to tell them, I do understand the hopelessness they feel. I have lived there, too. And the pain. It is so hard to be human and to have needs that never get met. It is so hard to grow up with parents who are sinners and who hurt us. When we are hurting, we cannot see that we have the same potential to hurt others. We cannot see that our parents may have been doing the best they could. It takes some years and experience—and facing one’s own failures—to understand that.
I also want to tell them that because of stupid choices, sometimes people die—or live long lives with serious disabilities. But youth is invincible. They cannot hear it. I had to lose someone close to me before that truth rang true. Oh, sure, we heard the scary stories, and we had a few close calls, but we never believed it would happen to us. Until it did. And now, some twenty years later, I still live with those memories and that grief. The stakes are so high, and kids do not even know it until the gamble costs big.
There is a difference between my generation and today’s youth. Their despair may be deeper. In a way, they are second generation nihilists. They grew up breathing in the hopelessness my generation created with our drive for freedom. At least we started out hopeful. We tried to change things that were broken. As Francis Schaeffer observed in his profound analysis of western culture, How Should We Then Live, we were correct in our analysis of the problem—the values of personal peace and affluence were impoverished—but we were mistaken in our solution. When society did not change, we gave up hope, and we passed this legacy to our children.
Despite this difference, however, every generation shares fundamental truths. Every generation must face the reality that this life does not deliver on its promises. And every generation shares the human heart: we are rebels. Looking back, I realize now that I acted as I did because, fundamentally, I am a rebel against God.
I am both angry and sad about Ethan. I want to shake him. Doesn’t he know he could have died? My anger rages at him for being so stupid. (Like I was.) Doesn’t he know that life is dangerous enough without adding foolish risks? (Like I didn’t.) And I want to cry for him. He has no idea that his life is intertwined with many others, that people all over the country care about him, that his death would leave a big hole in their lives. (Neither did I.) My anger wells up at the world that has brought him to this sense of isolation. (It is a lie.) My fear wells up, and I want to scream at my own vulnerability, mirrored in his.
Ethan has a lot to learn. Possibly, he has a lot to suffer before coming to some larger perspective. I pray that God will give him the grace to face his pain and to turn to the God who alone can begin healing it.
Ethan’s parents and I have a lot to learn, too. Like Ethan, we struggle inside our own fears and must face again our creaturehood before God, who is writing the script of our lives and before whom we are terribly vulnerable. But I know now that God is good. And although I cannot articulate how I learned that through my suffering, I know that suffering is where I learned it and that it is true. It is good that I am here again struggling, now over Ethan. It is good that God once again bring me to this place of humble acceptance of His right over us. Good, because it is part of seeking a kingdom promised but not yet here. Good, because it involves loving, in all our frailty, the best we know how. Good, because it is reality.
So, what is the best we can do for our children? We can seek to understand the cultural context in which they live and give them direction and instruction as best we know how. We can remind them with our words that we care about them and that their choices matter. We can share from our own experiences, not to prove them wrong, but to join them softly in their struggle. And we can be honest with ourselves and them about our own failures, confusion, and sinful strategies to hide from reality when it hurts and thus share with them our vulnerability in a way that communicates to them that they are not alone.
My friend Terry writes me, “The only way we can deal with this is reminding ourselves that eternity is forever and this world is short. If God brings Ethan’s soul to Him through this, then Ethan rises with Christ in the resurrection.” What a gift to have been given this perspective, this wisdom. And how frightening for a parent to know it.
[Author’s note: The characters described in this article are based upon fact; details and circumstances have been changed, however, to protect the identities of the persons involved. If you or someone you know has a drug problem, please take it seriously and consider professional help.]