“Oh he’s just a junkie,” said the person in the booth next to me, exasperated. “What a total waste of space,” he loudly exclaimed to his friend over his burger and fries. I was having lunch with a friend in the next booth and this interchange hit a nerve for both of us. I thought about the person who was being spoken of so cruelly and wondered how I would feel if I was being labeled a “junkie.”
Shame, that’s what I would feel, an overwhelming sense of shame and despair. Since 2005, many leading causes of death — including stroke, cancer, heart disease and lung disease — have all been decreasing. But deaths from drugs, alcohol and suicide — what some call “deaths of despair” — have been steadily on the rise. When we label, marginalize and treat our fellow human beings like this, is it any wonder why so many young people are susceptible to these deaths of despair?
Various research studies affirm that younger Americans are particularly affected. According to reports released by public health groups “Trust for America’s Health” and “Well Being Trust,” between 2007 and 2017, drug-related deaths increased by 108% among adults ages 18 to 34, while alcohol-related deaths increased by 69% and suicides increased by 35%. The report drew on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Altogether, about 36,000 millennials died from “deaths of despair” in 2017, with fatal drug overdoses being the biggest driver.
One of my favorite passages in Scripture comes from Isaiah 43:1 and says “do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.” God will always call you out of love because God is love. Evil, on the other hand, will always call you by your shame. “Liar,” “thief,” “bad mother,” “absent father,” “junkie,” “alcoholic.” Shame whispers repeatedly until it breaks you down and sometimes you believe the lie and give in to despair.
At the heart of shame and despair are the lies that you are unlovable, worthless, stupid or useless. Don’t believe it.
Whether you or the person you love have made good choices in your life, or poor ones, you are loved by God. If you have gotten lost in the world of alcohol, drugs, food, shopping or sex, Jesus died for you, just the same as he did for a newborn baby. If you attend church every Sunday or once a year, you have a place at the table. If you have rejected faith or are searching for faith, God knows where you are and is with you.
For the past 10 years, my husband has been working with those who have struggled with substance abuse. He reminds me daily how important it is to treat all people, not just like the “likable” ones, with dignity and respect. We can contribute to a culture of life or a culture of despair by the dignity we afford to others.
In this regard, the refrain of the popular song from “The Supremes” comes to mind: “Stop, in the name of love before you break my heart. Stop, in the name of love before you break my heart. Think it over.” Stopping or fasting from unkind and cruel throwaway comments would be a worthy Lenten challenge for all of us. We must remember that, although the tongue has no bones, it is strong enough to break a heart.
The person condemned in that restaurant conversation is not a “junkie,” but someone’s child, brother, friend, or first love or only love. God’s children who struggle with a terrible disease deserve our love and support, not our shame and condemnation. It’s time to stop labeling people in the name of love, God’s love.
Stanz is director of Parish Life and Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay. Her new book, “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church,” is now available from Loyola Press.