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Impressionism: The ritual of the drink

Critical of a culture drunk on alcohol
Impressionism with Rob O'Flanagan

A guy walks into a bar and asks, ‘Do you have booze here?’ This is not a joke.  

The man appeared to be a traveler, just off the bus or train, carrying a knapsack of some kind. He was in his mid-50s, some telltale signs of a hard drinking life. He needed a drink, a real drink, not one of those tall, impotent pints of beer everyone in the place was drinking.

He was happy to learn there was hard liquor available. He ordered a vodka and orange, and had it in him in a matter of moments. Sweet satisfaction.

I’m a non-drinker. A non-drinker enters most drinking situations carrying heavy ‘holier than thou’ baggage – the weight of societal attitudes that puts him on the outside looking in.

From that outsider vantage point, one sees that criticism of the drinking culture is something the culture does not appreciate. We, the citizens of the Free World, love our fermented beverages.

The drink has long been ritualistically embedded in the beliefs we cherish. From the sacraments of the church, to the toasting of matrimony, from the rites of passage of youth, to the raising of a glass after a death or a victory, booze is woven into the social fabric.

It is very difficult to look objectively at or to be critical of ritual. To do so will get you accused of being judgmental, condescending, insensitive towards those who have a problem or need alcohol to cope, or of simply being a buzz-killer or…holier than thou.  

In this way, the dominant culture finds subtle ways to oppress minority opinion. And in this way, our society perpetuates the real harm caused by the ritual of alcohol.

What perplexes me is that fair-minded, socially conscious people will throw the weight of their convictions behind all manner of good causes. They will put their bodies on the line for the environment, or give of their time and money to raise up the impoverished. But when was the last time a protest was mounted against alcohol, undoubtedly one of our greatest social problems?

Alcohol causes immeasurable harm to society in general, and that fact is largely overlooked, denied, hidden. Billions in annual health and mental health care costs, huge impacts on the justice system, social services, insurance, and the incalculable consequences to the fraying of family bonds and friendships.

I wish I could say that I’m proud of the fact that I am a teetotaller going way back. But it can actually be kind of a lonely lifestyle, a stance that can leave me feeling on the fringe of a great many ritualistic celebrations.     

My abstinence has a bunch of layers to it, not the least of which is the deeply imprinted trauma of a childhood surrounded by inescapable violence, neglect and abuse related to alcohol abuse.

And while the therapeutic community these days might see that as the beginning and end point of my general loathing of alcohol, I believe my abstinence has evolved and acquired other dimensions over the years.

My fear of alcohol, no doubt, is rooted in very unfortunate childhood experiences. I have never been good in pub or party situations. There are always drunk people whose aggressive, absurd behaviour sparks the fight or flight impulses of my inner boy. I quite despise such behaviour.

I abstain to avoid the substance abuse that may be embedded in my nature. I abstain as an observance of spiritual principle, and as an act of personal activism – a kind of lone wolf stance against a society dependent on alcohol. It feels sort of brave to me. And it gives me the ability to see inside the ritual and to be critical of it.  

Our society lives with a very odd and troubling contradiction. Drinking alcohol is so acceptable as to be nearly unconsciously woven into the social fabric. And yet, it is arguably our most destructive social ill. We love that which destroys us.

In our culture of drink immeasurable numbers of people suffer the various diminishing returns of alcohol consumption, including reduced mental function, diminished decision-making skills, domestic violence, loss of income, and a host of physical ailments. It is not just the heavy drinkers, the addicts who suffer.

These negative consequences seem to be the price we are willing to pay to be included in the rituals of the drink. From the perspective of a non-drinker it makes little or no sense.


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