Present or Vicarious?


“We have to create culture, don’t watch TV, don’t read magazines, don’t even listen to NPR. Create your own roadshow. The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe, and if you’re worrying about Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton or somebody else, then you are disempowered, you’re giving it all away to icons, icons which are maintained by an electronic media so that you want to dress like X or have lips like Y. This is shit-brained, this kind of thinking. That is all cultural diversion, and what is real is you and your friends and your associations, your highs, your orgasms, your hopes, your plans, your fears. And we are told ‘no’, we’re unimportant, we’re peripheral. ‘Get a degree, get a job, get a this, get a that.’ And then you’re a player, you don’t want to even play in that game. You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  

–Terence McKenna

I read this quote recently and it won’t stop playing in my head.  I’ve learned to pay attention when this happens, when words keep echoing and reverberating around and around (and they aren’t telling me that I suck).  Obviously this quote is dated and now we’re worrying about Beyoncé and Donald Trump and Lebron James and Stephen Curry and Ariana and Taylor and Selena and Drake and…

If I didn’t get yours, fill in the name.  Here is my takeaway, and I’m not the first to say it–we live vicariously through people who have nothing to do with us, who care nothing for us, and who will never meet us nor think of us.  I remember listening to a radio call-in show in which Paul McCartney was answering callers’ questions.  A woman got to speak to Sir Paul and gushed that this was the greatest moment of her life.  “Uh-huh,” he said, “and what was your question?”  Paul McCartney, from what I can tell, seems like a perfectly decent person, but that wasn’t the greatest moment of his life.  That wasn’t a memorable or meaningful moment in his life.  That was barely a moment in his life.  

I’m far from the first to suggest this, but our condition appears to be getting worse, so maybe it bears repeating:  Our real lives are the lives we live with the people we know and touch and talk to and love or slight.  The opposite of love is indifference and celebrities don’t love us.  Living vicariously is, to a large extent, the opposite of living in the present moment.  

Quickly, someone is defensive.  “You’re saying I should never watch movies or basketball or youtube or…”  Nope, I’m not making vast generalizations about how we should never make contact with entertainment or the internet–though Terence McKenna was saying that–and I’m not claiming that I’ve ignored the Warriors-Cavaliers series.  

I’m saying our danger is that we get consumed by lives we’re not living and we neglect to live our own.  “The nexus of space and time where you are now is the most immediate sector of your universe,”  which means your part in the Kingdom of God is exactly the space in front of your nose, everything within arm’s reach.  

I’ve been saying goodbye a lot lately.  As Billy Joel said, “So many people in and out of my life/some will last, some will just be now and then/Life is a series of ‘Hellos’ and “Goodbyes,’ I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”  And it is.  I’m saying goodbye to some folks whom I’ll see again in August and some whom I don’t know if I’ll ever see again.  And I hate that, and I embrace it, because this is life.  

Advertising, in my view, seeks to cause discontent, to tell you what’s wrong with you or what you lack so that you will spend your money to compensate for that gaping inadequacy that you didn’t know you had sixty seconds ago.*  Celebrity culture takes that a big step further:  you will never be this–this beautiful, this rich, this famous, this important–but you can live vicariously through them and, by identifying yourself with them, somehow be part of that life, that wondrous life so far beyond your mere mortal reach.  If you just worship them, you get to share in their glory.

Skubala, skubala, skubala.  

I know, “worship” is a loaded word.  That might be hyperbole.  The word that should frighten us, however, is “vicariously.”  Whether you love or hate certain celebrities, whether you cheer for or oppose a particular professional athlete or sports team, the question I think we must raise, and keep raising, is “am I living their life or mine?”  

McKenna’s point, if I understand him, is that all of this “diversion” tempts us to engage their lives and not ours, to become immersed in what is not us, for the profit of others.  But even if we never spend a cent (or centavo) on these diversions, the danger is just as real if we focus on their being instead of our own.  

I want to make two more points and then ask a question.  

First, as I understand life, loving God and loving others are the deal, that’s what matters, and they only come as a package deal.   The whole, “I really love God, I just can’t stand any of these people God made” doesn’t hold water biblically:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  Heck, we can’t even claim to love God if we refuse to help the people around us: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”**

We spend our lives–I mean this literally, we pay with the coin of our time, which is the only currency we’re given–on what matters to us.  We can’t really say, “I spend only .002% of my time on this, but it’s the most important thing in the world to me.”  It isn’t.  Of course, we can say whatever we want and delude ourselves in whatever manner we choose; I mean, the evidence that tells the tale is how we invest ourselves, and our time reveals our hearts.  

McKenna writes, “You want to reclaim your mind and get it out of the hands of the cultural engineers who want to turn you into a half-baked moron consuming all this trash that’s being manufactured out of the bones of a dying world.”  As a Jesus follower, I agree.  If God and people you know and love–or are called to love–matter, then getting sucked into this empty, meaningless, celebrity-worshiping or -crucifying Matrix diverts us from the Kingdom of God, from what and who make our lives meaningful.***

Second–and we always have to say this, for every one of these conversations–legalism kills.  Making rigid rules for these things does not lead us to a fuller, more joyful, more present life, but it does make us smaller and more judgmental–and as a special bonus, we often end up cheating on our own rules, anyway.  

Many of us are probably far more consumed by “cultural diversion” than we want to admit.  But we can also enjoy some of our entertainments as one aspect of our relationships with the real people in our lives.  My friend Jeff and I talked about the Yankees last night while sharing dinner.  We enjoy that as a mutual interest.  Sharing music, watching and discussing movies together–Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King, for example, is brilliant, hilarious, and painful and raises so many cultural and racial issues–shouting together at other people playing basketball or baseball better than we will ever play them, these can be tremendous, life-giving ways to build our relationships.  They can even lead us to a deeper understanding of God and ourselves.  

Or they can turn us into “half-baked morons, consuming all this trash.”  

How do we know if we are enriching our real lives together or living vicariously and missing our lives, the only lives we get?  For most of us, it’s probably not one or the other all the time.  Some of us may be pretty far down the rabbit hole and don’t want to hear it (if you’re pissed off at me about this post, good to ask why), while others may just get lured once in a while.  I don’t have answers or even guidelines.  But here’s the biggest tip-off I know: When I’m feeling frustrated that I’m not spending enough time with the people I love, I first check on how much time I’m spending on my “entertainments” and diversions. The biggest time drain will be our phones: 

It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure for how much time people spend on their mobile phones in 2017, but the simple answer is ‘over 4 hours a day.’****

I’m vigilant with myself about this because I know I can get sidetracked and obsessed–obsessed is one of my specialties–and I want to live being present to the people I love.  

My question, then, is simple:  Are you living your life or someone else’s?  


*If you want to reflect more on this, this book will give you plenty to chew on:

**Rhetorical question.  It doesn’t. 

***This is a side note, and needs to be its own post, but arguing with people on social media whom you will never meet or know is similarly a means of distraction and unhealthy misdirection of time, energy, and emotion from our real–present, physical, relational–lives.  Even if you argue “only” in your head, not on the screen, I still think this is true.  

****You can read a compilation of the studies that concluded this figure here.

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