Counterfeit Delights

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Alcohol sales are on the rise, and have been for a while. No surprise when liquor stores are identified as essential institutions, even though our churches aren’t. People who haven’t been able get to Mass, or to their libraries, or to their workplaces haven’t yet been forbidden from going out and buying a bottle of booze.

And why not? When so many of life’s basic goods have been suddenly banned (by those in charge of the common good, no less), why not celebrate those that still remain? Many Catholics may be on the fence about marijuana, but they don’t tend to be suspicious of booze. Jesus Himself made good wine, the Psalms tell us that wine “rejoices the heart” (Psalm 104:15), and Saint Paul encourages Timothy to drink wine.  So alcoholic drinks should be something we can still enjoy.

True enough. Wine’s a good thing people can still enjoy, just like pizza’s a good thing people can still enjoy. My concern is that people are buying more alcohol not so they can enjoy a good drink, but so they can chemically manipulate an escapist pleasure.

Alcohol is tricky that way. You can delight in it the way you delight in pizza, or art, or music, or a well-written novel. Or you can use it like you’d use marijuana (which was also publicly available during the lockdown, by the way)—namely, as a psychoactive drug to simulate a good feeling artificially. And when you use alcohol for its psychoactive effects, the feelings you end up with aren’t tied to good things.

Try any alcohol-induced experience. The experience is disconnected from what it pretends to be about.

If a guy says he needs a couple of drinks before he finds himself attracted to a woman, it means he doesn’t think she’s really beautiful. In fact, she’d slap him if he told her, “You don’t look pretty to me now, but just wait till I’ve had a few beers.”

If the same guy were talking to his friend, and said, “You know, I find your conversation really uninteresting until I’ve downed a couple of shots,” the friend would take it as an insult, and rightly so.

Or suppose our bibulous protagonist were to say, “I always feel really smart after I’ve had half a bottle of wine. That’s when I get these great insights, and that’s when I love having deep conversation.” Everyone within hearing would roll their eyes, because we all know that drinking makes you stupider, not more thoughtful, and that the sense of profundity that comes with alcohol is the same self-congratulatory illusion of intelligence so common among foolish people.

These examples all illustrate that drugs (including alcohol) can offer a kind of counterfeit experience, one that mimics the crucial human joys of appreciation, fascination, and contemplation. It makes you feel like you’re delighting in beauty and truth and goodness—but in fact you’re just delighting in a neurological disturbance that doesn’t point to anything outside your own head.

Many people realize that drugs producing visual illusions involve a rejection of, or escape from, reality, but how many of us realize that using drugs in order to produce illusory pleasures involves an analogous rupture from the world? Alcohol is often used in precisely that way, and recreational weed—which can’t be used for nutrition or hydration—is used that way pretty much every time.

We can’t let ourselves go that route. We were designed for reality, and given the sublime faculties of intellect, will, and feeling in order to engage reality as true, good, and beautiful. Allowing these faculties to operate at their fullest on the external world is the prerequisite finally to reaching the Divine Reality who is the source and fulfillment of everything else. Some drugs—including alcohol taken to the point of drunkenness—warp our minds and wills, and make us less suited to union with the Ultimate Truth and the Ultimate Good. But there are other drugs—including drinking to get buzzed, and certainly marijuana—that warp our capacity for delight, and therefore make us less suited for the final joys of Heaven.

One of the chief moral tasks of this life is learning to take delight in reality. We don’t get a pass on that assignment just because of a government lockdown.

Suppose another lockdown hits sometime this winter. Suppose many of your ordinary, good pleasures are taken away. Ask yourself now what true, good, and beautiful thing will you enjoy then. What person, what project, what backyard vista will you turn to for delight? Because as long as there’s a real world out there, there’s good pleasure to be had. The reality of this world and the next are way too worthwhile to drink or toke your life away.



Professor Miravalle’s book
How to Feel Good and How
Not To is available now
from Sophia Institute Press.



[Photo credit: Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images]


John-Mark L. Miravalle is professor of Systematic and Moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Maryland. He is the author, most recently, of How to Feel Good and How Not To (Sophia Institute Press, 2020).

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