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Our Walk In The World: To Participate in Reality

In February, Mark Nepo will be speaking at Western Michigan University. See MarkNepo.com for details.

Today, reality shows, which have little to do with reality, serve as a collective tranquilizer. Under the guise of being participatory, they seduce viewers into thinking that they have actually taken an action in a community by voting for contestants. In fact, viewers are still isolated and longing for connection, while the shows reinforce self-interest motivated by scarcity and fear. Viewers fantasize about being on the shows and winning, rather than face the lives that are truly theirs to live.

Shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, and Fear Factor, to name a few, define success as the ability to outwit, outperform, out-stomach, and out-bully others in order to secure money and celebrity. In The Apprentice, success is determined by appeasing a patriarchal authority at all costs. Survivor is a romanticized training ground for the winner-take-all mentality that informs the most ruthless kind of leadership. There, voting among rivals for who stays on the show is a test of duplicity and betrayal. Fear Factor titillates viewers with a vicarious glimpse of people mustering the nerve to perform terrifying acts, all for the sake of winning. These contrived situations replace the miracle of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary with the need to devise more and more jarring acts so that the perverse defines what is extraordinary. This, in turn, is the source of shock—not the source of wonder.

These situations are all innovative forms of gambling, which is about risk taking and not necessarily about wagering money. In his novel Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse comments on this when the main character, Siddhartha, loses his way in a life of gambling. After tumbling down that road for several years, he realizes that gambling provides the thrill of chance, which serves as a distraction and poor substitute for the experience of genuine risk. I think these shows do the same thing. They deter us from the genuine risks that await us all: to face things truthfully, to love each other honestly, and to risk living a genuine life, alone and in community.

One crucial difference between chance and risk is that genuine risk is lived through and not watched. And it is the living through that is most satisfying and rewarding. It is the living through that leads us to a deeper experience of life. The thrill of chance, on the other hand, arises when we imitate risk. Then, we need chance to escalate in order to stay thrilling, since our imitation of genuine risk is seldom satisfying or rewarding. This is why the wager has to increase each time we gamble. Likewise, the emotional ante of these reality shows continues to escalate in order to have viewers keep wagering their attention and affections.

Paradoxically, the reality show ethos—where we gather and watch for something to happen—has inverted the gifts needed to participate in reality. One of the greatest stories of seeking God and reality is nested in the novel I mention above. In Siddhartha, the young seeker goes out into the world in earnest conversation with life itself, with unscripted experience. He seeks out certain mentors but discovers unexpected teachers along the way.

Siddhartha’s timeless journey unfolds from an open mind and an open heart, from giving and not getting attention. And what awaited Siddhartha awaits each of us. For we are all seekers who trip out of our self-designed plan further into the world, until the journey shapes us. So, staging an experience and filming what happens defeats the whole purpose of exploration.

What matters in life most often shows itself when no one is looking. It occurs in unplanned moments of revelation, not in a filmed episode with the world watching and the meter running. All my experience tells me that Spirit doesn’t show itself this way, though it could happen, since Spirit is everywhere.

Now, there are those who ask me to calm down: It’s only entertainment. But I remember watching channel 5 wrestling when I was a kid with my grandfather. He enjoyed it so, though he seemed to always know it was fake. Today there are many who don’t know or care that these versions of life are fake. All this has taken us further into a culture that has lost the distinction between what is real and what is acted.

It reminds me of the Roman Colosseum, where Christians were thrown to lions for sport and gladiators fought to the death to entertain the multitudes, dissipating their thirst for rebellion. Through the use of television and technology, the web of reality shows has inadvertently become our virtual Colosseum. And if hell is the cost of false living, then we have cultivated a hellish culture that can no longer tell what is real.

So, our ability to find truth and meaning becomes even more crucial. For once we lose the distinction between what is real and what is false, it is twice as hard to find our way. It is difficult to fly from the birdcage if you see the bars as branches in which to nest. S&H

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