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Dangerous Distractions

March 3rd, 2006 · Written by · No Comments

How are we to expect this man to be aware? His life is an amalgamation; a twisted one with no synergy and little coherence. He spends almost nine hours preparing to leave for, traveling to, engaging in, and returning from work. Work itself is a self-contained reality with laws, relationships, hierarchies, and consequences entirely divorced from the outside world. There, the sun rises and sets based on things like dividends, profit margins, sales goals, and overhead. When he returns home, more demands upon his attention await. Spouses, children, and friends gnaw away at his “free” time with narrowly focused games that may have had evolutionary roots, but have been yanked so far out of context they are often malignant. How is he to worry about issues larger than himself? He turns on the TV. Or the computer. Or the radio. He turns off part of his mind.

Rarely, he might read a periodical not unlike this one for his daily dose of enlightenment. But it’s not enough, just a pang of guilt that opens his eyes a sliver, only to drift shut again shortly thereafter.

He sleeps. He rinses and repeats. He is an average American.

THE MANY FORMS OF ESCAPE

Recreation…escapism…diversion….whatever manifestation it marauds under, it is a collection of multi-billion dollar industries. The average American spends more money on entertainment than on health care, groceries, clothing, or gasoline. Peyton Manning is paid $875,000 per game so that grown men can vicariously throw touchdown passes with his arm. On Sundays we pay through the nose to define life as a 100-yard field or as Wimbledon’s center court. How dare Pete Sampras not exhibit the exultation we feel? After all, it’s our victory, not his.

Go to the mall on Sunday and you’ll see capitalist princesses prance euphorically as a million merchants beg her patronage. It is a world designed entirely for her; and, well, the girl right next to her. Phrases like “the customer is always right,” and “customer service is our top priority” reinforce the notion that shoppers can rightfully demand the materialistic world revolve around them. The simple opium offered by celluloid muses looks nearly antiquated by comparison. Watching films has always been akin in spirit to identity theft. Now we shun it for being too rigid. We like our stolen lives to be interactive. Hence the rise of games like Grand Theft Auto, a cathartic rampage that would have caused Freud to rise from the dead if only such indulgences didn’t seem commonplace.

Twenty-eight million Americans regularly take mood elevators like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil…

Twenty-eight million Americans regularly take mood elevators like Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil (compare that to the paltry two million Americans addicted to Cocaine). The very ethos of drugs in the Prozac family is to make the user numb, so as not to be disturbed by his or her role in an unsatisfying reality. And perhaps the most potent and destructive legal drug is not a pharmaceutical product at all. Advertising-a mood-altering barrage meant to instill cravings, manipulate perceptions, and create euphoria-impacts most of the domestic population. And in contrast to illegal drugs, which often cause a disassociation with or diminishment of the self, advertising intends the opposite: it is a steroid for the ego, designed to place us…you… I at the center of multiple independent, artificial realities.

Contrast that with…

THE REAL WORLD

If the average American was asked to draw an empty field, few would leave the canvas blank. Most would render a nondescript expanse of grass, rocks, and soil; oblivious to the fact that such places are typically home to countless forms of unseen life. The truth is that very few places on Earth are completely devoid of living occupants. What makes a place “empty” in the mind of the modern human is its lack of orientation toward humans. In an empty field, many things may be at play, but little significance is affixed to a lone primate. There are no neon signs or intense marketing devices present to make one feel important. Such a setting cuts through the mythology of our bloated self-worth and mocks our deification of the individual.

But few Americans are able to have such an experience, trapped instead in a circumscribed alternate reality of arbitrary morality and sensory overload. Between cell phones, ambient freeway noise, email alerts, radios, and television, our senses are bombarded with far more stimuli than evolution prepared us for. When salient points like overpopulation, urban sprawl, pollution and mass extinction do manage to penetrate the infinite daily distraction faced by the common citizen, those messages manifest as an annoying buzzing to their splintered senses. Further, modern social settings typically do not allow for swift conflict resolution via the “fight or flight” response. As such, individuals tend to carry unresolved stresses that strain their emotions and decrease their ability to react properly to new stimuli. Thus, a pertinent news story about the scientific validation of global warming just becomes “one more thing to worry about.”

Even those who try to step back and see larger truths are overwhelmed by the sheer size of this world. Reality is, sadly, quite uncomfortable. Perhaps that is why, set against its somber hue, the allure of diversions like sport-with its crisp rules and clearly defined boundaries-becomes overwhelming. Diverting attention is a well-known method for distracting children from pain caused by injury. It would appear that the same approach works to soothe a throbbing conscience.

THE NICE, TIDY CONCLUSION

Diversions underlie the otherwise inexplicable disregard westerners show for their part in the degradation of the biosphere. Still, escapism is not inherently evil, nor a product of technology. The human brain is able to generate its own fantasies and alternate realities through imagination. Storytelling and role-playing are as old as humanity itself. Rather, technology augments and facilitates our ability to escape from and construct multiple realities, and our position relative to the ecosystem makes that ability disastrous. In essence, the civilized way of life builds a wall between its patrons and the natural world. Diversions close the proverbial curtains, making us not only divorced from reality, but relieved of any impetus to consider it.

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