This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte.
We live in a culture today that is over-saturated with all forms of media. Technology has provided an abundance of physical devices, such as smart phones, tablets and computers, not to mention the variety of video game systems and televisions. These devices give us near-constant access to social media, news outlets, games, movies and online videos. Reading devices and apps can give you an endless supply of books to read, from the latest bestsellers to the classics of great literature. On my current e-reader, I can carry a library of hundreds of books with me wherever I go, and I can download a new book at any given moment without waiting.
This past year has been difficult for so many, and the proliferation of media has added its own dimension to our experience. I’ve talked with many friends and family members who have had to take breaks from their social media accounts because they were feeling overwhelmed from the sheer volume of news and people’s personal opinions about the crisis in the world. As a result, a common theme of discussion lately has been the books or television shows that people are binging on to distract themselves from current events – and there certainly is enough variety from which to choose. I’ve heard it frequently opined about the number of new shows and movies out there to watch on various streaming services, yet there simply isn’t enough time for them all. It has never before been so easy to escape from reality and get lost in other worlds and thoughts.
With access to so much information, news and entertainment, how do we regulate what we take in? And is there anything wrong with escaping into these various forms of media?
In his classic essay “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien comes to the defense of the idea of “escapism.” He says, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” In Tolkien’s argument, there is nothing wrong with dwelling on things beyond your immediate circumstances. There is even something admirable about forgetting your current hardship and thinking about more pleasant and interesting things. This concept takes on even more significance when coupled with a quotation from St. Therese of Lisieux: “The world is thy ship and not thy home.” As a prisoner should not be scorned for thinking of his own home and the outside world, none of us should be scorned if we think of our heavenly home that awaits us. Stories, whether found in books or movies, can focus our minds on heavenly things: love, hope, valor and all the other virtues. One need only look at books such as Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” to see how “escapist” literature can actually bring us closer to God.
This does not mean we should simply ignore true pain and suffering in the world, though. Divine Scripture itself is filled with the sorrows of this world, and for good reason we are particularly called to meditate on the Passion of Our Lord, even as we are also called to meditate on the joy of the Nativity and the glory of the Resurrection. We must all strive to strike a balance between focusing on the hope and beauty of heaven while also acknowledging and seeking reparation for the sins committed here on earth.
One of the scripture passages I try to let guide me more than any other is Philippians 4:8, in which St. Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” This message took on a new meaning for me recently when I realized that even in the darkest times in history, there are still things worthy of praise.
Reading about Communism and Socialist Russia might seem like a rather depressing way to “escape” thinking about the present crisis, but that’s exactly what I have been doing this past summer. However, I haven’t found such things to be especially disheartening, because I have also found many things that are commendable and praiseworthy in these accounts. One need only read about the actions of St. Maximillian Kolbe, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, or countless others to see that even in the hardest of times and situations, the virtues and truth of heaven can still be found. In our current era there are also stories of hope, heroism and compassion. Even as new scandals or moral failures might come to light, such news should be a sign that there are still people out there who are fighting against such things. Our repulsion should be a sign that our own moral grounding remains firm.
Well-told stories can be a way of fixing our minds on higher things, our heavenly home and the ideals that will bring us there, and reliable modern news sources can keep us grounded in our current reality and the work to be done here. We need both, but we must not let ourselves become overwhelmed or consumed by either.
As we navigate the different media available to us, whether the news, movies or books, we should let the words of St. Paul guide us. Is what we are consuming helping us to think on what is honorable, just, pure, lovely or commendable? Is it excellent or worthy of praise? If we must escape, let it be an escape into virtue. But let us also not forget that there is still work to be done all around us.