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Starting Point

30 more hours a week, unplugged


A 1989 magazine article quoted pollster Louis Harris: “Time has become the most precious commodity in the land.” If the time crunch was serious in 1989, it is epidemic now in 2003.

Bookstores devote whole shelves to tomes about reducing stress and simplifying one’s life. Radio talk shows feature speakers on the same subject. Retired folks are as busy as working parents of young children. And kids! Our school-aged children don’t have 30 minutes a week to call their own.

What is going on here? And why are we willing to just sigh and throw up our hands with an attitude of, “Oh, well, what can you do?” No one is going to fix it for us. No one else will serve as the guardian of your well-being. And no one is as well-equipped as you are to intercede for your child.

I believe there is a message in all this busyness and the corresponding quest for simplicity of life, but I think we are kept too frantic to hear it. And I have a suggestion, not necessarily a solution, but one that might help us be more attentive and listen to the still, small voice.

When I drive home in the winter dusk, through town and past farmhouses, I see one thing all the homes have in common. It’s the blue light. There are televisions on in every home, sometimes more than one.

According to folks who count these things, the average time an American spends watching TV is 30 hours a week, not including the time that it is on in the background. That means that if we live to age 75, we will have spent about 13 uninterrupted years watching TV. And three of those years will be watching commercials.

There are good things on television. Some educational, some even inspirational, but most of it isn’t very challenging and a lot of it is downright insipid or vulgar. But television does not reflect real life for the simple reason that folks on television are never watching television. No wonder their lives seem more interesting than ours.

Imagine this: The Angel Gabriel appears to you and says, “Behold, favored one, I am bestowing upon you 13 more years of life!” Would you take it? Or perhaps, “Behold!” (Angels always start out with “Behold” to get your attention.) “Behold, you will be granted three more hours every evening and, as a special bonus, 15 more hours of weekend!” Would you take that?

What would happen if you gave up TV for a while, say for Lent? What would happen if you just unplugged it, put it in the closet and hid the clicker? Here’s what might happen. You, and others you live with, will start feeling anxious. It’s the TV DTs. You’ll wander around the house, wondering what to do. If you can endure this feeling for a few days -- it’s called boredom -- you will find something to truly engage you, not just distract you like TV did. And when you find that engaging activity, you will be doing what you say you’ve always wanted to do -- write that book, finish a project, read to your children, answer letters, walk, pray, learn to play an instrument, cook a special meal, clean out the basement.

Ten or 20 or 30 more hours a week! Take it! Life is too precious to spend it watching the unreal lives of others and wondering where the time goes. And wouldn’t it be great to belong to the small counterculture of folks who, when asked if they have time, answer, “Sure! Would you like a cup of tea?”

Paige Byrne Shortal lives in rural Missouri where she forgot to call the cable guy and hasn’t watched television in eight years.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003