The Choice to Become Absent
“Drama” seems to be on an all-time high.
Our blinding attraction to it has captivated the heart of our times. We love to live it, watch it, or even worse, create it. Nowadays, it appears as if everyone has a “dramatic” story about their next-door neighbor, estranged friend, or rude relative. According to a recent survey, almost half of our nation’s younger generation watches more reality television than last year. 18 to 25 year-olds watch close to four reality shows a week. And if that’s not enough, our society is increasingly immersed in Youtubing, Facebooking, Twittering, Tebowing, Prozacking, texting, and dawdling ourselves into oblivion.
How about our growing addiction to alcohol? According to newly-published data, one in every six Americans consumes eight mixed drinks within a few hours, four times a month. Twenty-eight percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 drink five times a month with the intention of becoming intoxicated, swallowing seven drinks in one sitting.
Why do people dedicate so much time and effort to such futile preoccupations? Why does a large portion of our population choose to be mentally absent, via a variety of distractions, for significant portions of every day?
Egotism, Voyeurism and Escapism
The first possible reason, which relates to our fascination with drama, bears a grotesque form of egotism. When we see shows that are infested with lowly behaviors and inappropriate comportments, it makes us feel good, without having to budge. It’s a delightful pat-on-the-back. It reassures us that we are good people, in spite of our guilt conscience that may periodically appear and attempt to force us out of our comfort zone. It is true what they say: In the republic of boorishness, mediocrity is king.
The second reason, which also relates to our attraction to drama, is psychologically categorized as “modern voyeurism.” Human beings have an innate curiosity to explore the outside instead of the inside, the “you”, “him” and “her” in lieu of the “I”. This voyeurism is an easy way out of the long and tedious road to self-refinement. And it gives room to the misleading notion that one can learn how to behave, talk, eat, think and dress by scrutinizing the lives of the people of our choice.
Finally, there exists a third reason that speaks to most of life’s deviations. It is best described as “escapism,” and it too is an effortless yet deceptive way out of misery. Decades ago, Walter Canoon, the renowned American physiologist, famously explained that when faced with challenges, human beings must choose between “fight” and “flight”. They can combat their difficulties or flee from them. Unfortunately, the gravitation toward drama, alcohol and the many other modern-day distractions, point to the growing tendency in our midst to escape and flee, and thereby anesthetize ourselves from our moral responsibilities of life.
The Fusion of Animal and Ministering Angels
But can we truly rid ourselves of our prevailing drive to explore? Is it really wrong to flee from reality when stress threatens to invade?
The answer lies in the very definition of “man”. Centuries ago, the Talmudic Sages taught that the creation of man resembles the fusion of an animal and God. “In some ways humans are like the ministering angels of God. In other ways, they are like animals.” In fact, the word for man in Hebrew, Adam, conveys a dual meaning: on the one hand, it means earth and materialism. On the other hand, its meaning indicates a resemblance to God.
Perhaps, this existential dichotomy explains our perpetual restlessness. Since two contrary dynamics exist in the fabrics of our being, we frequently vacillate between them. At times, we find ourselves enthralled by animalistic behaviors from within and from without, while other times we heed to a higher calling from the world of God and His ministering angels.
Unshackling ourselves from this inherent vacillation is close to impossible. Our powerful drive to diverge and explore will always exist. Yet, we must learn how to funnel it from the selfish, hollow and animal self, to the altruistic, purposeful and divine self. Our lives, and the lives that surround us, will then be filled with true joy, lasting serenity, and contagious kindness. To paraphrase a verse in the book of Psalms: “The divine statutes are perfect, they restore the soul… the divine precepts are right, they rejoice the heart.”
Happiness Comes From Within and A Lesson in Electricity
Lastly, we also ought to remember that most challenges cannot simply disappear. True; every now and then, temporary pauses and diversions from life can help us de-stress, refresh and rejuvenate. But they cannot become permanent, for the vast majority of challenges will pursue us until we find the focus, courage and conviction to tackle them thoroughly and persuasively.
Moreover, we must rid ourselves of the perception that life’s blessings, such as peace and happiness, can be found outside. The “you”, “him” and “her” will never be able to substitute the blessings of the “I”. In the words of Helen Keller: “happiness comes from within; not from without.” Indeed the only path to self-improvement and genuine joy are introspection and the meticulous study of the inner self.
Man = Electricity
Years ago, as a teenager struggling with self-identity questions, I turned to my dear mentor, world-renowned scholar, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, for guidance. “You seem troubled,” he said, “but I’m happy to find you in this situation.” After a short pause and with his characteristic, engulfing smile, he explained: “You see, human beings are like electricity. In order to produce light, we too need a negative pole and a positive pole. Channel your thoughts and efforts, from your negative pole toward your positive one. Create a circuit of positive thoughts and good actions, and your life will then surely engender light.”
We all are challenged to steer our inner forces, that occasionally draw us to the fleeting animations, and ‘dramatic escapes’ of this world, from the negative to the positive pole. The result is productivity, happiness and ultimately a better future.
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, AZ. He is a sought-after educator, lecturer and author of many essays and writings on the Jewish faith, mysticism, and social analysis.