Nearly ten months ago, my wife and I gave up television for good.
By most standards, we did not necessarily have an unhealthy addiction to television. We did not binge or turn any show into a sacred ritual with priority over every other activity. Like most people, we kept up with a few shows, usually the ones that people talked about like House of Cards or Game of Thrones, or re-watched some of our preferred movies and sitcoms.
Our weekly viewing time rarely exceeded five hours, but this was enough to make it a habit. Although it often left us with the empty feeling of time wasted or, in the case of the more “adult” shows, a sullied imagination, it did not seem so unhealthy. After all, we did this all our lives and could still pride ourselves as better than the average person in most things. The “gray animals peering from electric caves” depicted in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 or the family breakdown discussed in the classic essay, “Television: The Plug-in Drug,” by Marie Winn did not apply to our lives, at least.
Still, the nagging feeling that television sapped our talent and drive, if not our time, lingered. It finally was one of our priests who moved us to take the plunge into a TV-free existence with a provocative sermon against television. He quickly acknowledged the more obvious problems with the sinful content in most programs and their corruptive influence, but he took more time to examine the subtler spiritual effects. Television viewing, regardless of content, destroyed one’s imagination, social life, and prayer life. He recounted many examples of neighbors ignoring one another, children and adults suffering from perpetual boredom, and even men and women in religious orders neglecting prayer. In general, television seemed to sap the spirit out of everything and everyone.
Hearing this was enough to move my wife and I to remove the television altogether and cancel our Netflix subscription. We were actually excited about it. We had ceased to find much joy in watching anything (I remember we were re-watching episodes of Frasier at this point), and the school year was about to start again. We were also expecting our first child in a few months and did not want her glued to a screen like the many infants and toddlers we observed at restaurants and stores, eerily pacified by their parents’ smartphones.
At first, I thought more would happen after we ended this habit. I assumed we would have so much more time, which would automatically lead to more reading, writing, praying, and bonding. However, just as with any other habit, another one quickly swooped in to fill the absence—reading the news online. Granted, this was a more informative, less time-consuming habit that did more for me than watching Netflix’s Daredevil, but it was a habit nonetheless. It was a regular distraction from the realities inside and outside myself. After a few wasted weekends, I later made a point of limiting myself to a few articles and giving this up completely during Lent.
A busy schedule at work also mitigated the big changes I expected to see in myself. Only my weekends and evenings looked slightly different. There was not enough time to allow me to read so many more books per month or finish any grand projects, but there was enough to wish for these accomplishments all the more. My wife and I spent much of our free time talking about our days and plans to improve our lives.
It was only after a few months that we noticed a difference. The desensitizing mental and emotional haze brought on by television started to dissipate. Life became more intense and vivid as we started feeling and thinking more about everything and everyone. One benefit of this was that we experienced much less boredom and irritation with the mundane; one drawback was that relatively insignificant events received magnified attention.
This greater sensitivity brought an unforeseen boost to our social life. Not that we avoided people before, but we had a renewed desire for spending time with others after putting the television away. We would have friends and family over for dinner, for cocktails, for board games, for joining us at Mass, for helping with home repairs. Our social circle has grown much larger this year than in the past, and we continue to make new friends and reconnect with old ones.
Paradoxically, the surge in conversation and reflection that came from eliminating television also brought on a greater desire for silence. Television can fill a room with images and sound, which act as a drag on any thought a person may try to have. Growing up, I became used to this drag and would stifle any deep thoughts that surfaced at an inconvenient time. Like many people, I kept my thoughts light, my talk small, and passed through whole days without thinking much at all—most people today would consider that happiness.
Now, I like to find more satisfaction in those moments of repose during the day and seek to extend them. Not only has contemplation become a real thing for me, but I can concentrate much better. Even with the television off, my imagination would replay still scenes of TV shows in my mind and bits of catchy pop music; after so many months without television, these residual thoughts have largely disappeared and my mind can enjoy some peace and quiet.
Looking from the outside now, my wife and I both agree that watching television, even to a moderate degree, takes a large toll on the spiritual life. Relationships become less important, life becomes less real, and the soul retreats from one’s consciousness. This, in turn, stunts one’s ability to pray, to love, to learn, to feel, and ultimately to mature—what Cardinal Sarah frequently refers to in God or Nothing as “ the interior life.”
So many people could benefit from putting away their televisions. I think this is the first step towards a wholesome lifestyle, let alone a holy one. Even though it may bring anxiety at first, like throwing away old possessions, it is ultimately for the best: there will be less clutter and more room to breathe.