American Idols

With professional hockey and basketball now entering their postseasons, and with the annual return of the national pastime known as baseball, I find my thoughts turning to the rather charged subject of false idols.

Don’t get me wrong: I have been, at times, rather fan-atic about sports myself, and I still visit ESPN.com regularly; there are still teams whose success or failure tugs at me. As a child back in the pre-Internet era, I collected baseball cards and kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings. sportsingWhen, following a rather dramatic playoff loss, my father questioned why I was crying over a game, I angrily protested through my tears that “if I didn’t cry, it would mean I didn’t care!” Later, as a college undergrad I yelled myself hoarse over football and basketball teams my bands supported with great devotion.

So I hope I’m not being hypocritical here. Indeed, as I’ll explain shortly, there are idols everywhere—including self-righteous judgment. It’s just that, as in a previous post on the subject, certain aspects of the religion I grew up with seem to be making a resurgence in my middle age, ironically as I seek a more consistent, serious Zen practice.

The term idol can be taken to mean to anything worshiped falsely, the human tendency to get our priorities way out of whack and hold something up as being of infinitely greater importance than it warrants; excessive and/or blind devotion, that sort of thing.

Pretty much anything can be made the object of idolatry, including religion itself. I recently read a Zen story in which a master warns a monk that worshiping the relics he keeps in a box will harm him, whereupon the skeptical monk opens the box to find a poisonous snake inside. It pleases me that Zen not only refuses to take itself too seriously, but in fact points to the dangers of such behavior even as it values true, appropriate devotion. There are also Zen stories about monks going to the extreme of destroying sacred texts in order to make the point that forms are not truth.

Typically, our idols take more prosaic forms than venomous snakes. For one thing, there are the idols of comfort—our prized possessions, our habits and routines. Then there are the idols of distraction—the vast universe of entertainment and celebrity culture, our dependence on devices and virtual reality. We talk about TV characters as if they were real people, or movie stars as if we knew them; we follow the political arena as if it’s just another reality show with two sides pitted against each other in a bitter death match.

Now, I do comprehend why we humans are like this:  all of us, without exception, crave meaning, purpose, and belonging. Many of us sometimes fear being alone with our thoughts, particularly if they include a nagging suspicion that life doesn’t have a neat and tidy structure, a clear path or goal. If you haven’t already seen it several times, I highly recommend Louis C.K.’s take on how we use devices to avoid feeling anything negative, thereby stifling our capacity to feel anything. So it’s very true that living authentically, taking responsibility for one’s life and choices, can be very difficult: small wonder, then, that we take refuge in distracting and/or comforting idols.

And yet as my Zen practice develops, so does my desire to be more consistently compassionate. To me this includes remaining mindful of the harm that idols either cause or perpetuate. I appreciate the camaraderie of a shared sports allegiance, the allure of escaping into a movie or show. And yet these can seem shameful luxuries when measured against the suffering in the world. How can we justify the money and time we shower on our false idols when thousands die every day from easily preventable causes? (See Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save.) What does it really matter how “our” team’s doing this season, or how contestants are faring on reality/game shows, when we’re rapidly poisoning our planet?

As a longtime promoter of Sudbury schooling, I believe it’s not my business to tell anyone what’s a good use of their time, nor am I interested in judging others’ choice of profession, their hobbies, etc. Passion, belonging, and fulfillment are great things that we should all enjoy. All I would ask any of us, myself included, is that we strive to be mindful of our inclinations and habits, what pulls us this way or that. We can develop and exercise empathy, we can aspire to remain open to our general interconnectedness.

How can I act to spread compassion and reduce suffering? Of all the things I could choose to do right now, what’s in keeping with an outlook that values the well-being of all? I think these are the questions that really matter. At least, they’re the ones I try to keep in mind.

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