Recently I heard an interview on the radio with an American journalist who had just returned to the USA after living for nearly twelve years in Paris. While living there, his son was born. That child, now nearly ten, had been raised outside of popular culture. His parents, both literary types, didn’t own a television set, listened to classical rather than popular music, weren’t attuned to the sports scene, and their interests and spirits didn’t rise and fall with the ups and downs of the celebrity of the day.
And so when they returned to the USA, their son was very much the outsider to pop culture, unfamiliar with the latest pop stars, game shows, and the like. As his dad was explaining all of this, the interviewer asked him: “Has your son held out against American culture?”
The journalist’s answer: “For about two days! Of course, he didn’t hold out, nobody does! Western pop culture, for good and for bad, is the most powerful narcotic that has ever been perpetrated on this planet! Nobody holds out against it.”
Our culture is a powerful narcotic, for good and for bad.
It is important that we first underline that, partly, there’s a good side to this. A narcotic soothes and protects against brute, raw pain. Our culture has within it every kind of thing (from medicine to entertainment) to shield us from pain. That can be good, providing it isn’t a false crutch.
But a narcotic can also be bad, especially when it becomes a way of escaping from reality. Where our culture is particularly dangerous, I feel, is in the way it can perpetually shield us from having to face the deeper issues of life – faith, forgiveness, morality, and mortality. It can, as Jan Walgrave famously said, constitute a virtual conspiracy against the interior life. How?
By keeping us so entertained, so busy, so preoccupied, and so distracted that we lose all focus on the deeper things. We live now in a world of instant and constant communication, of mobile phones and email, of ipods that contain whole libraries of music, of television packages that contain hundreds of channels, of malls and stores that are open 24 hours a day, of restaurants and clubs that stay open all the time, of sounds that never die and lights that never go out. We can be amused, distracted, and catered to for 24 hours a day.
While that has made our lives wonderfully efficient it has also conspired against depth. The danger, as one commentator puts it, is that we are all developing permanent attention deficient disorder. We are attentive to so many things that, ultimately, we aren’t attentive to anything, particularly to what is deepest inside of us.
This isn’t an abstract thing! Typically our day is so full of things (work, noise, pressure, rush) that when we do finally get home at night and have some time when we could shut down all the stimulation, we are so tired and fatigued that what soothes us is precisely something that functions as a narcotic – a sporting event, a game show on television, a mindless sitcom, or anything that can soothe our tensions and relax us enough to sleep. It’s not bad if we do this on a given night, but it is bad when we do it every night.
What happens then is that we never find the space in our lives to touch what’s deepest inside of us and inside of others. Given the power of our culture, we can go along like this for years until something cracks in our lives, a loved one dies, someone breaks our heart, the doctor tells us we have a terminal disease, or some other crisis is powerful enough to suddenly render all the stimulation and entertainment in the world empty. Then we are forced to look into our own depth and that can be a frightening abyss, if we have spend years and years avoiding looking into it.
The poet, Rumi, once wrote: “I have lived too long where I can be reached!” That’s true, I suspect, for most of us. And so we end up as good people, but as people who are not very deep – not bad, just busy; not immoral, just distracted; not lacking in soul, just preoccupied; not disdaining depth, just lacking in practice.
Our culture is a powerful narcotic, for good and for bad. It has the power to shield us from pain, to soothe us in healthy ways. That can be good. Sometimes we need a narcotic. But our culture can also be over-intoxicating, too-absorbing It can swallow us whole. And so we have to know when it is time to unplug the television, turn off the phone, shut down the computer, silence the ipod, lay away the sports page, and resist going out for coffee with a friend, so that, for one moment at least, we are not avoiding making friends with that one part of us that will accompany us into the sunset.