“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Neither my girlfriend nor I are very TV-oriented. In fact, I would go as far as saying that we’re pretty anti-television. That isn’t to say that we don’t have a handful of shows we follow, but we would never pay for cable, as 99.9% of what’s pumped out of the boob-tube is, for lack of a better term, mind-melting garbage.
But nevertheless, even with our picky viewing habits, we recently found ourselves falling into a TV routine. After work we’d make dinner, then sit down to watch, the Daily Show and Colbert Report (because sometimes the only way to deal with this world is by recognizing it as the tragicomedy it is), the latest Anthony Bourdain (because we identify with a hard drinking, food-loving, travel junkie), Mad Men (because we’re human and it’s awesome), and barring a new episode of either of those, we’d settle in for a movie. Sometimes two.
Not a terrible way to spend an evening, right? It’s not like we’re binge watching the seventh season of “Neon Light Wars” (if there isn’t such a show, there will be soon). Who says there’s anything wrong with working hard, then kicking back to watch the tube and relax?
But there is something wrong with it. My girlfriend and I are guilty of it to a small degree, but many people out there are nothing short of television addicts. It doesn’t matter what happens to be on—if it glows and makes words and sounds, they’ll watch it.
Why do I say with such conviction that there is something wrong with television? It’s simple—our bodies let us know.
How do you feel after six hours of TV-bingeing? Usually kind of disgusting, right? And generally speaking, excessive television-watching is accompanied by equally excessive eating, usually of garbage food, which makes us feel even worse.
And we all recognize it. We joke about it in this sort of self-depreciating way: “Sheesh. Last night I was a slob. All I did was sit around and watch an entire season of Dancing with the Stars. It was gross.” But then we go ahead and do it again…
As I said, to my own degree I’m just as guilty of it as anyone. My girlfriend and I became more and more set in our watching routine, we built show upon show, and pretty soon as many as six hours a day could be spent watching what in all reality amounts to a waste of our time.
What is TV? It’s an escape (and an advertising tool), plain and simple. It’s a way for us to avoid the discomfort of being aware and present in the moment. It’s a way for us to ignore the fact that we aren’t doing the things we wish we were, whether that means writing or getting to know our friends better or going for a walk or any of the other millions of things that we know we should do, but instead elect to watch TV.
And TV has a powerful sedative to it that lures us in without our realizing it. How many times have you thought to yourself, “I’m just going to sit down and watch for a minute, then I’ll get to the things I need to do.” Hours later you emerge from its glow hardly aware that any time has passed at all…
Like I said, my girlfriend and I fell into it too, and I hardly realized how much of my time was taken up be television, and how far from the present they were pulling me.
Yesterday we left the city and moved to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. We’d gotten a house-sitting gig over the internet, and when we arrived at the cabin it turned out to be quite a bit more than the simple rural retreat we’d expected. The property is dotted with fire-pits, a guest cabin, a gazebo, a bath-house that looks out into the woods, and an endless range of tools and equipment. As I type this there are dozens of hummingbirds fighting (brutally) for sugar water about three feet away. Deer pass through the field with regularity. And this morning I believe I heard some turkeys.
Moving out to the woods isn’t a rare thing for me. I’ve spent two summers over the past seven years living in a tent near where I’m staying for this summer. Back then the tent sufficed because I worked as a bartender in town, and it was peaceful and easy to come home after work, start a fire, and simply do nothing. This time I had to find an actual house as the nature of my work require access to the internet, but we were lucky enough to find something that offers nothing short of paradise.
These thoughts of TV and its ability to extract us from the moment came to me last night. After cooking our first dinner at the cabin, we sat down and ate it during a show. When we were finished there was a momentary urge to put on another one, to follow the routine.
Then it hit us—outside there was a fire pit that was begging to be used. Television was abandoned, and instead we spent the evening feeding the flames, watching the stars come out, and getting to know one another better.
A sense of peace, relaxation, and of overall presence abounded. Stresses washed away with each passing moment, and as they did my enjoyment of myself, my girlfriend, and simple existence increased exponentially. I felt happy. I felt fulfilled. Tonight will be much the same.
Human beings are meant to be aware and present. The entire reason we’ve been able to evolve to the point that we have is thanks to our ability to be mindful. For innumerable generations, people looked up at the moon night after night, wondering about it, making stories about it, wanting to touch it, and after tens of thousands of years, we finally reached it.
That’s how almost all of our greatest innovations, creations, and triumphs have come about. Not by diluting the present moment through distraction and entertainment. We as individuals and as a species succeed only when we break away from all of that, and when we gorge ourselves with it, we forget what is truly important, then we collapse. Think of Rome and how crazy they became for the coliseum—that was essentially their form of TV, and we know how well they did…
This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson—the importance of being present—and it probably won’t be the last time that I’ll forget it. But anytime I begin to fall into habit of escaping from the moment, heading out into nature never fails to remind me of its importance.