Bach had twenty children, yet still found the time to write more and better music than a hundred of his contemporaries. When he was fifteen, he walked two hundred and fifty miles from home to attend school in another town. For a while, when he attempted to resign a post as a court musician, he was thrown into prison. I don’t know if he was ever bored. He certainly never played a video game or became addicted to a television series.
Something has developed in my country and culture that makes me think that nobody will ever again be as profoundly creative as Bach. We don’t have time for it, because we’re spending all our efforts looking for comfort and diversion.
The expectation that life be entertaining is a new phenomenon, one that has blossomed like an algae bloom in the last thirty years or so. I remember one day I was receiving a massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on either side of me lay Thais in their twenties, who spent their massages playing with their smart phones, furiously scrolling up and down, hoping to be distracted from this deeply pleasurable and therapeutic experience by catching sight of a photo of a cute puppy or a meal one of their friends just ate. Certainly, given the rate they were zipping through these posts they weren’t doing much real reading, nor could they be noticing their massage, the thing that they were paying for and was happening to them here and now.
When the novel was first created, in the beginning of the nineteenth century, some warned that it would encourage the foolish and impressionable to waste their valuable time on trifles instead of concentrating on and working for what mattered. Nowadays, we would praise anyone who had the concentration to read a novel. We would declare that person a student of the arts, an intellectual. Try teaching a college class that requires reading a novel and see how many of the students voluntarily submit to such torture.
Constantly seeking distraction or entertainment becomes addictive, and as with most addictions, you can never get enough of what you don’t need. You end up trading the Real McCoy for its shimmering substitute. And when that trade proves unsatisfactory, you find there are no refunds.
Family life is more than a few good-looking actors sitting on couch trading witty comebacks. Romantic love is more than the titillation of a first kiss. We all know that at least theoretically, but when faced with an opportunity to choose the real over the virtual, most of the time we leap for the illusion. This is why so many hope to enter the Entertainment Industry. Everyone is vaguely aware that there’s big money to be made there for simply goofing around and creating ghosts.
When you ask young people what they would like to be when they grow up, a discouraging proportion volunteer “a celebrity.” The idea that a person would not be celebrated for outstanding achievement in a certain area, but rather that the state of being celebrated would itself become a full-time job is a relatively new one. Think Paris Hilton, role model for a generation.
Entertainment is a first cousin of advertising, that all-pervasive enterprise which seeks to invent heretofore unknown needs and then fill them. Again, the end result is wasted time and resources, disillusionment, and bondage. Far from being a lofty goal, the chronic thirst for entertainment proves the greatest obstacle to achieving any lofty goal.
But this process of fooling Pinocchio into becoming a donkey on Pleasure Island begins in his seemingly simple desire to be distracted. Please, amuse me, now, this instant, or I’ll die of boredom! So you turn back to your smart phone, hoping this time the voyeuristic hit will satisfy. Most of the time it fails to, but intermittent reward is the essence of addiction. Usually, when you yank of the slot machine handle not much happens, but every long once in a while…jackpot!
It hasn’t been difficult for cell phone providers to peddle the myth of connectivity because the target audience is already pre-sold. They’ve long ago accepted the idea that connectivity beats physical presence. Experience has taught them that illusions on small screens are preferable to seeing the real thing. In fact, the smaller the screen and the tinnier the audio, the more compelling it is. All their friends agree, and the younger you are, the more that matters.
I fear for the young people of the world, whether in developing or developed economies. The Man has you by the throat and you don’t even know it. In fact, you’re grateful. The harder he squeezes, but more you’re willing to give up. As it says in the Bible, Esau sold his birthright or bowl of porridge, and when he wanted a refund, it was denied him, though he sought it with bitter tears. Youth and health are a gift, a temporary gift that will eventually be taken from you. Wasting it chasing phantoms is grim folly.