There may be no greater gift to a young person than to let her know that her story is woven into the fabric of a larger narrative. Then, her point of decision is not an isolated instant, but a historic moment.

Many variables come into play as one ponders the use of drugs, especially in the experimentation phase. What do I know about this substance? What is the likely outcome of my use? Will this decision impact someone else and, if so, how?

These, and innumerable other questions must be weighed and evaluated. Facts are recalled, and trust factors related to the sources of those facts are taken into account. With such a flurry of deliberations, and with so much at stake, it is easy to understand why prevention efforts first try to reduce the number of times a person is tempted.

The environmental approach to prevention seeks to alter the landscape so that the number of times a person comes to a point of decision will be reduced. Still, no approach is going to eliminate all opportunities to use drugs. To say, “No,” something must be in place, imbedded in the very soul of a person that can be brought to bear against the enticing promises of drugs.

In groundbreaking research conducted over a decade ago, the Search Institute identified common assets available to children and youth who made good choices. Of the 20 external assets recognized, the overwhelming majority are relational in nature. Research points to the obvious conclusion that good choices are pulled from a reservoir of relational support—through the backing of family, church, school and community resources.

Although research cannot fully explain the “why” of the data, conventional wisdom associates several factors to the power of relationship. A few of these features are particularly important for the faith community to explore.

One of the more obvious factors deals with the way in which relationship determines the weight given to information. Facts from trusted sources are more likely to be utilized. This is especially important when information matches the behavior of the one giving it. By intentionally using their inherently strong positions, parents and clergy can be especially useful in providing good and trusted information.

However, as important as good drug education is, information does not always make for good decisions. Research indicates that even when young people know the facts about drugs and the risks associated with them, many feel impervious to the dangers and undaunted by the warnings.

There is something about relationship that goes beyond the transmission of data and helps young people make the best use of good information.

Relationships may be measured by the degree to which they communicate attachment. This quality may explain much concerning the benefits of relationship. Simply put, when a person feels an attachment to another person, choices made are weighed against the effects the decisions have on the other person.

The notion of attachment helps to explain the compensatory purpose of drug use. Drugs take the place of something. For those of a theological bent, it can be understood that drugs take the place of God; that drugs, in fact, become gods.

The stories of addicts, however, give a rather existential reading of this phenomenon. Drugs become convenient and predictable “objects” to which a person can become attached and thus overcome overwhelming “aloneness.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of relationship is that it offers attachment to a historical context larger than a single individual. A shared history and a promise of a shared future work in tandem to promote a personal choice that is not made in isolation. This process operates far below conscious thought, which is why it operates so well.

There may be no greater gift to a young person than to let her know that her story is woven into the fabric of a larger narrative. Then, her point of decision is not an isolated instant, but a historic moment.

Steve Sumerel is director of the department of family life and substance abuse, of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina‘s council on Christian life and public affairs.

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