....but what will the neighbors say?

In the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death last week, there has been no shortage of stories addressing the alarming rise in the use of heroin, especially among teenagers. CNN provides a "snapshot" of the epidemic in a story focusing on heroin use among teens in Long Island. 

Tellingly the author writes, "Parents are caught between denial and shame over the
stigma of having a heroin-addicted child."

This makes sense: what community isn't proud when the local kid succeeds by getting to play a professional sport, getting into medical school, or achieving success in some field? It's easier to say to friends, "My son the lawyer" or "My daughter the professor" than it is to say "My son who struggles with addiction."

This may arise from a "But what will the neighbors say?" mentality. I've seen it with families where a child is gay or lesbian; where a child struggles with alcohol or drugs; where kids struggle with depression or anxiety. Such pressure can be placed on parents, on families, to maintain the "perfect image" that it breeds an atmosphere of shame and silence.

This has led me to begin to think of "sin" as a form of un-making. Rather than thinking of it as notches in God's great tally book, it may be far more helpful to consider sin as how one's actions actually un-make us.
  • When I lie to my friends and family, I am un-making bonds of trust that have held us together; through my lies, I systematically unpick the knots that bind us as one. 
  • When I abuse alcohol or drugs, I un-make myself as I place a substance at the center of my life and re-orient my life to this thing that will destroy me if I don't escape its clutches.
  • When I ignore the plight of those around me, I un-make myself as I focus exclusively on my own wants and needs and fail to embrace being a member of the human family. 
  • When I maintain silence about abusive behavior, I un-make myself by allowing a terrible crime to be perpetrated on another. 
The Catholic Church has learned, painfully, the deep pain of maintaining silence, of putting its appearance above its responsibility to care for those in need. The heinous evil of child sexual abuse was only exacerbated by the corporate silence that has led to the un-making of the Catholic Church. Consequently, it will take time, penance, and God's grace for the Church to regain a voice of solid moral authority in the world. 

We would never blame the victim of sexual abuse. Likewise, we should never blame the victims of drug and alcohol abuse. Blaming the victim, judging the family, may make the accuser feel better but it only isolates the victims; to shame another in this way is to contribute to the person's un-making. To shame a victim, to judge the family, to contribute to another's unmaking: this is a terrible sin.

Hardly any one of us is innocent of this. We are, all of us, implicated in this form of silent unmaking. 

In the case of drug and alcohol abuse, especially among teens, I'm not saying they are without responsibility. And yet, once the addiction has set in, it makes no difference how they became addicted (we need to look at many factors that contributed to the initial act of trying it). All that matters is that they are addicted and that, if we do not act, the substance will rule the person's life and eventually destroy it. 

If our culture is one wherein family's must fear judgment and shaming on account of their children, this is a mark of a deep and perhaps unrecognized sinfulness we must address. If we have sisters and brothers struggling with addiction, how does shaming them help? How does stigma help? They do not. 

The thought of anyone suffering in silence for fear of shame or disgrace saddens me. What sort of society or church do we live in where we communicate that it is better to suffer in silence, to be systematically un-made, than it is to seek the help and healing one needs? 

If fear of judgment or shame lead families or addicts to keep silent, then they are but part of a larger problem. If this is the culture to which we contribute, a culture that permits and promotes the silent un-making of our sisters and brothers, then we are ourselves scarred with a terrible sin that is slowly un-making us as we turn a cold heart to those most in need. 


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