OK, you've turned 21. Congratulations! You're "legal" now. You can take the rite of passage to an Atlantic City casino; you can ID your way into the local watering hole. Cheers! You've been inducted into the "adult" world where, with alcohol to relax you and dull your inhibitions, you can hang out with friends in the bar scene. You've arrived. But where?
The road into adulthood and adult friendships is certainly not a very easy one. My parents stand for certain things, and I've stood for certain things: but now I've got to decide what I believe in, how I want to live my life. There are so many choices! So many different roads I can take. Should I follow the crowds into the taverns? Now that I've tasted the bar scene--being around drunken people, drinks spilled on me--is this what I really want to do, 9 pm to 3 am? Is this becoming what I need to do? Has my "adult" creed become that God created Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights for bars?
It's not surprising that finding out where alcohol fits into their lives is tripping up a lot of college students. It's flooring a lot of older adults as well. Let's face it. Alcohol is a big part of the American scene. It's the drug of choice, and it's legal. It's no accident that Cheers was one of TV's most popular sitcoms. People want to go, as its catchy theme song says, "where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came." For many Americans this feeling of well-being, acceptance and belonging, be it at home or in a bar, centers on alcohol.
Those who have eyes that see have long recognized that alcohol destroys countless beautiful lives and families. But Prohibition of alcohol was a dismal failure. Alcohol has a deep seated and privileged place in our culture. Witness the titanic struggle that was required, during your own lifetime, to try to end even something as mad and murderous as drunk driving. When people are out partying, they are now more conscious of the need to have a cold sober "designated driver" to get everyone home in one piece. For all her fame and fortune, not even Princess Diana was exempt from the ravages of drunk driving.
Am I suggesting that it's wrong to have a beer or visit a bar? No. Contrary to what Protestant evangelicals [who are keenly sensitive to the destruction alcohol causes in many lives] may teach, our Catholic tradition sees alcohol, TAKEN IN MODERATION, as one of God's blessings. Jesus' very first miracle was to change water into wine for wedding guests (Jn 2). And following Christ's lead at the Last Supper, it is not just grape juice, but wine that we consecrate when we come together for Mass.
But young and old alike, we need to have a very sober awareness of the place of alcohol in our lives. First of all, about 10% of us, one out of ten of us, are physically predisposed to become alcoholics. While sometimes alcoholism may not seem so bad in the beginning, we need to recognize that alcoholism is a progressive and fatal disease. We are not very good at seeing through the denial, to when alcohol is beginning to create serious problems in ours lives, or in the lives of those around us. We must not be blind to the fact, to cite just one example, that most date rape is alcohol related.
Even if we are not alcoholics, we all need to understand the role that alcohol is playing in our lives. How many alcoholic drinks can I safely take at any particular event? Do I stick to that limit? If it is going to be a long gathering, can I begin with nonalcoholic beverages, so that my total consumption will be within my limit?
Any religion that depended on a drug for its spiritual high would be highly suspect. Equally suspect should be any of us whose sense of well-being, acceptance or belonging depends on a drug, like alcohol. If I decide to take a drink as part of my socializing, that's one thing. But to let myself get to the point where I need alcohol in order to relax, to "be myself," to have a good time, is quite something else. It is a shabby substitute, a serious hindrance, to life's most challenging adventure: continually discovering and developing, celebrating and sharing, WHO I AM.
And so, 21 year old, welcome to the world of adults. May God move you, swiftly and safely, past any temptation to view alcohol as a short cut to genuine adulthood or personhood. My prayer is that any creativity you may have developed in trying to find ways to secure alcohol before you were 21, will now serve you better, by helping you to find ways more imaginative and healthy than alcohol, to enjoy being with your friends, to enjoy being YOU.