Letting Things Go:
About five years ago, I gave up Instagram. Hard stop. Well sort of a hard stop. I actually tried it out first. I forget the exact details, but I remember thinking through some articles I was reading about the negative affects of media and decided to take a break. The only specific thing I remember about that informal study was an image of a major group of people watching the queen or pope go by, with all but one (an elderly lady with a big ol’ smile), holding a silly phone in front of their face. Only one, truly living in the present, and about the only one really smiling.
In a short span of time, I took two similar trips. Both were to the springs and surrounding trails in central Florida. The first was pre-Instagram break, then second post. On the first trip, I was actually at the springs for the first time. The crystal blue water. The crisp, clean, cool skies above. The shades of green and brown both real and reflected. They were beautiful—but they were not the only thing on my mind. The likes were calling, constantly. Adjust that angle. Tell that story. Mediate that experience. To be honest, there were maybe 5 or so people who I really cared to share that experience with—yet instead of sharing it at the next party (imagine waiting days, maybe weeks, to share something, how’d that become so novel an idea!) or even just sending the pics in a group chat, I chose to send my experience out to hundreds, still capturing most of the five, but far less intimately.
The second trip was interesting. I still used my phone to capture some pics. But now the image and immediate experience itself was my concern, not what others would think. It was a rush of fresh air. A couple clicks and a delete account button later (and the “are you sure button” and the “are you really really sure button”), and I’ve never looked back.
As it relates to media, it was hands down one of the best decisions I’ve ever made—without a doubt. I have no regrets. Now, I say none of this to try to shame anyone who has Instagram. I still have social media (Facebook and this blog). Further, none of what I write about TV below is meant to be held in a morally superior way, just a way worth considering, that I believe—based off both fact and experience—will perhaps lead to more flourishing and joy, not less.
Lastly, these types of decisions are not really isolated in my life and I believe we should reflect on our habits and practices from time to time and reassess if that is really how we would like to be spending our time. If this post causes nothing but that reflection then it is a success. Personally, two major life changes reflect a similar mentality and strategy, both bearing similar results.
The first was when I was 18. I was a quasi-religious sports fan, without a doubt more time was spent each morning watching my required hour of Sports Center than was spent in the Word or in prayer (a lot more time for that matter). I’d like to say some super spiritual reason caused me to consider just how much I watched sports, but honestly it was just learning to surf. I loved it. And, that love caused me to wonder, what else have I been missing? Thus, I did what any reasonable 18 year old would do, I took a two year fast from watching sports privately (social watching was still allowed). 15 years later and that’s still the only way I watch sports. I’ve never, ever, looked back. No regrets.
The other decision was to give up video games, and if you would have seen my old Halo 2 stats, you would know that that was no small matter. I’d log 100 hours on an RPG, and then go right ahead and start it all over again. This was more of a gradual death, but it is no less celebrated. It is one of the best things that I’ve ever done for my life, no doubts about it.
Getting to the Point:
Judging by the title, you must have realized that this post was not directly targeting social media or sports or video games. Rather, it has a specific target in mind, television. Isn’t it amazing how in less than a century something that didn’t exist could become so utterly ubiquitous? Not that television is the only item of our late modern age that claims such a privilege. Technology moves fast, much faster than reflection and consideration. Before we’ve had much time to really think about it, the invasion is already successful. And, we haven’t even had time to ask the most important question, just how powerful is our foe? or rather our conqueror?
Writing on the impact of transgressive humor in shows such as South Park, Jesuit priest Michael V. Tueth writes the following:
[Television] has become unusually powerful, not only in shaping but also reinforcing mainstream values. Television has become the culture’s primary storyteller and definer of cultural patterns by providing information and entertainment for an enormous and heterogeneous mass public.1
The ability to shape and reinforce values through story to an enormous audience is a great power to wield. As Christians we should never underestimate the power of story as, “The vehicle that God has chosen to convey [the Christian] view of life and the world is narrative.”2
Now, if this post were truly designed as a comprehensive critique of television, then I’d follow this line of thought further. But, as it is more of a general observation and personal experience post (or story!), I simply wrote the above in order to have us not underestimate the power that television can wield.
This post will end with a variety of observations from some recent television fasts that I’ve taken and really enjoyed. But before we get there, we’ve got a few more people to hear from.
Private Entertainment and The Fuse
Writing on the importance of a community proactively developing social trust (and referencing the work of other sociologists), sociologist John G. Bruhn states the following in reference to the social ills that television has created:
The largest culprit [of the decline in social trust] is television. A major effect of television’s arrival was a reduction in participation in social, recreational, and community activities among people of all ages… Television privatizes leisure time and anchors people at home. Heavy users are isolated, passive, and detached from their communities.3
I remember reading that chapter last semester at the University of Florida. I had already been thinking through TV use (for a while), and this felt like some fuel for an already kindled fire. Note some of those key phrases that have yet to leave my mind: reduction in social, recreational, and community activities, privatization of leisure, anchored at home, isolated, passive, and detached. Perhaps your experience is different, but for me, all of those critiques really hit home, especially when I’m taking a complete break from privatized TV use.
So not only is TV telling us our primary stories, and thus shaping our values, it is also holding us as captives. And that’s what bothers me. The question is, do I want TV to have that kind of power? Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried all the compromises. I’ll limit myself to no more than one hour. I’ll take Sundays off. I’ll do this and I’ll do that. Well, I hate to tell myself, I’m too weak for that kind of lukewarm arrangement. You give me an inch, I can’t help but take that mile, eventually. No doubt about it, I’ll start comprising with my comprise. Appeasement is a terrible strategy against powerful things.
The other interesting thing about our glowing little friend, is just how wide spread its critics are. From priests to secular sociologists, there are many sounding the alarm. Consider just one more critic, the famed novelist Stephen King. Writing on, well, on writing, King confronts television from a successful writer’s perspective. His colorful words make his point unmistakable (pardon his French):
I am… a member of a fairly select group: the final handful of American novelists who learned to read and write before they learned to eat a daily helping of video bullshit. This might not be important. On the other hand, if you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than striping your television’s electric plug-wire, wrapping a spike around it, and then sticking it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far. Just an idea.4
Just in case you missed it, King is saying that if you want to be a good writer (or creative), blow up your TV, or at the very least, consider it.
The Benefits and One Downside of Giving It Up
As I write, there’s a big TV in my house. Its electrical plug wiring is intact and there are not any spikes around, but it is unplugged. And, the remote is in a safe… inside of a different safe… with the batteries removed. I started the year reading Atomic Habits by James Clear, who highly (and wisely) recommended making habits you are trying to quit too annoying to do. It took an extra safe and the removal of batteries, but hey, I got there.
I should be clear, I have no intentions of getting rid of my TV. I want it for parties. I want it when I’m sick (I don’t know where I would have been fighting off COVID without copious amounts of Anime!). And, there are still a few shows on my list, but they will not be watched alone. When Arcane came out, my sister and I watched each act three Friday nights in a row. We did a similar thing with the Star Wars Anime release on Disney+. But note the big differences. Rather than isolation there was intentional socializing. Rather than a greedy habit, these were specific and structured events. They were memorable and very different from a daily or weekly binge. I say all this to demonstrate that I am not anti-television. I have just become deeply skeptical that it is something that is good, or even neutral, for human flourishing.
I believe that if most Americans (myself included) drastically altered (without eliminating) there TV use, they would find themselves with deeper relationships, more creative minds, more energy, a more outgoing nature, a more adventurous spirit, a deeper appreciation for daily beauty, and would just be down right happier. Below are a few of the many benefits that I’ve personally experienced, and the one downside.
More Time: We live in a culture that never has enough time. My feeling of available time has drastically increased with my abstaining of television, even at a disproportionate level. That is, if I don’t watch that hour of TV, I feel like I save more than an hour of my time. Technically that’s not exactly true, but functionally and experientially, try it out and tell me I’m wrong.
More Spontaneous: As a single guy, once I’m finished with dinner I’ve got a whole potential evening ahead of me. Now, if that dinner involves an or hour or two of TV watching, my evening’s available time has shrunk to the point of probably being best to just stay home. Without TV? Well shoot, I’ve got to do something with all that time. Read a magazine at the local brewery. Do some writing at my coffee shop. Or just drive around and randomly come across a Shakespeare by the Sea event (yep, that happened).
Better at Planning: When you know TV won’t offer you an escape from boredom, you start to plan ahead. Even as someone who spends a lot of time writing and reading, there is only so much that I can do. Without TV, I am more intentional with setting up plans to limit the amount of downtime that I have—and let me tell you, those plans are always more fulfilling and fun than screen time.
More Organized and Just as Rested: For a time, I gave myself a two hour rule when I came home from a 24 shift. I could watch two hours of TV with no (willful) regrets right when I got home, to chill out. It was restful, to a degree. And, I noticed improvement in my stress levels. However, without TV, I still need this mental veg-time, but I have found more productive activities that still provide the same level of catharsis. Particularly, house projects, cleaning, and a lot of yard work. Picking weeds and digging holes is mindless, but also deeply relaxing. And it’s a productive, regret free, way to spend my first free hours off shift.
Deeper Appreciation for Life: Media is a veil. We are embodied creatures who primarily are meant and designed to experience this world in and through our bodies. Media distorts this. Not that that is all bad! Thank God for Zoom during Covid. However, we are media saturated. Media is quite literally a form a mediation between us and reality. By its very nature it removes us from a depth of the experience. With less media, the sunlight gleams with a touch more brilliance, the clouds hold a richer color, and the crickets sing with a few more chords. I’m not kidding. You start to wake up to the world around you without a clicker in your hand.
This list could go on. Ironically, I’d be lying if I said that there was no temptation to plug that sucker back in. There’s actually quite a bit of that, even having experienced all that I have. And, who knows, maybe I will. I don’t think it’s a sin, even if I think (at least in my case) it lacks wisdom. But, I hope I don’t. This is a habit that I want to keep kicked. That’s part of the reason that I’m writing this. But, I’d also be lying if I said that there wasn’t one obvious downside to my lack of TV usage.
I spend a lot more money, even after canceling my Disney+ and CrunchyRoll subscriptions. I spend it on that evening beer. On the cup of ice cream or that late evening decaf iced americano. On that new book that I suddenly have time to read. On that event, that movie, that show, that social snack. Yeah, my wallet is a bit lighter, but without a doubt, it is money, and even more importantly, it is time, well spent.
I’ll close with a final reflection on my overall experience, maybe yours will resonate. After watching TV I don’t always regret it, at times I’ve really enjoyed it, and even deeply benefitted from it. And yet, there have been plenty of instances where that time was truly wasted in a way that tasted like bile afterward—more times than I’d like to admit. And, interestingly enough, I have never, not even once, regretted not watching TV. Not once. And that makes me think that Stephen King was really on to something.
- Michael V. Tueth, “Breaking and Entering: Transgressive Comedy on Televsion,” in Kirk Boyle, The Rhetoric of Humor, (Boston: Bedford, 2017), 106
- C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 278
- John G. Bruhn, The Sociology of Community Connections, Second Ed. (New York: Springer, 2011), 21
- Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York, NY: Scribner 2010),