Our workday is done so we reach for the remote, many of us ashamed of the guilty pleasure. We think it’s a time-waster, an addiction. Still, we can’t do without it. Entertainment can feel like a staple, like air, water, food.
Like sex, – even upstaging sex – couples losing interest in bedding down together because they’re escaping into entertainment – books, cell phones, TV, video games, VR goggles, spectator sports, porn.
We worry about children’s screen time. What will become of them? They hardly live in reality anymore. And what will become of politics as it degenerates into an entertaining reality show detached from reality?
Our respect for entertainment isn’t keeping up with our craving for it. When we crave something this much, we should stop hand-wringing long enough to figure out how to make best therapeutic use of it.
Here are some tips for wringing the best from our entertainment fixations.
- Fiction (virtual reality) goes way back: In the beginning of our love affair with entertainment was the word – language, the human capacity to represent things, real and imagined, in words. A picture of a dog looks like a dog. A dog’s bark points to a dog. The word dog is untethered, neither looking like our pointing to a dog. Dogs dream but not like us. Our untethered words give us the power to imagine anything, anytime. At the origin of humanness, there it is: virtual reality – word-driven storytelling, myths, religions. Whatever else they are, they’re entertainment in the original sense of the term, “to hold among,” (tain: from tener, to hold; entre- or inter-, among). Originally entertain meant consider. Later it meant to steep your mind in a fiction, often a fantasy held among a group of people. Even if you’re sure your religion is gospel reality, you recognize that religions (other people’s) can be fantasies. We’re the only creature to fantasize wildly, alone or together and the root of it is our capacity for words. Words give us the power to live in two worlds at once, non-fiction and fiction.
- Given VR, we all need VR therapy: Animals can seem brave. Lord help them, they live full time outdoors, predators around every branch and bramble. Still, it takes a lot more bravery to be human. Animals panic occasionally and then calm down. We humans suffer chronic PTSD since, with words, we can revisit every trauma, real or imagined. We suffer pre-traumatic stress syndrome too since we can imagine future traumas, real (our deaths for example) or imagined. Worse still, we have to deal with other people, lost in their own unpredictable virtual realities. It’s like living among chronic hallucinators, some of them monsters who might mistake you for a monster. No wonder we escape into entertainment therapy, removing ourselves from the action, imagining other people’s traumas and victories instead of our own.
- There’s no greater fantasy than thinking you’re a pure realist: It’s easy to assume you’re strictly into non-fictional reality. After all, you’re used to agreeing with yourself and disagreeing with others. Posing as a realist is also handy in debate. You can often prevail by pretending you’re the objective one, that other people should just wake up to the reality that you alone can see. Confidence sells, so we pretend we’re realists but realistically, none of us could stand to be realistic all the time. Human life is just too weird. Admit it: You like entertaining fictions as much as the next person.
- Entertainment is great medicine but you can overdose, pretending fantasy is reality: We overdose on entertainment when we start treating our fantasies as reality. To psychopaths, narcissists, and gaslighters, reality becomes a fictional game with self-titillation as the object. You’re just a pawn in their game. That’s dangerous – people indulging in hyper-active chronic hallucination, not looking where they’re going. We all need entertainment, but we’re in trouble if we mistake it for reality. Whatever floats your boat so long as it doesn’t sink other boats, the real people in your way.
- Entertainment teaches us how to fantasize safely: The show comes on and you’re immersed, engrossed, engaged like it’s real though of course you know it isn’t. When the show is over, you get back to reality. Entertainment is great practice for learning to manage your two worlds, reality, and fiction. Fantasy is a nice place to visit but you can’t live there. Visits to entertainment teach us how to return to reality. You have to live in reality which will eat you alive if you ignore it.
- Entertainment is play and like your parents shouted, “watch out or someone’s going to get hurt!”: Play is a deliberately ambiguous activity. To get the most out of it, you have to take it seriously, but if you take it too seriously, someone gets hurt. That’s not just a problem for humans. Puppy play is necessary practice for real life dogfights. If puppies didn’t take it seriously they wouldn’t get the practice but puppies have sharp teeth so they can’t take it too seriously. Human entertainment has gotten so incredibly vivid, that it’s credible, so vivid it can seem like reality. That makes it easy to overdose, treating fantasies as real.
- Beware of fantasies that insist you claim that they’re reality: Politics, religion, and spirituality can be deeply therapeutic. You get to pretend you’ve found all of the answers and therefore know exactly what to do. That’s a great vacation from your reality where you don’t have all the answers. Politics, religion, and spirituality often promote themselves not as therapeutic escapes but as more real than reality. It makes sense that they would. Fantasy is more vivid if you pretend it’s reality. That’s like mom telling you to play as fiercely as you can, the more people you hurt the better. Fundamentalist militants of any flavor are engaged in entertainment gone dangerous because the game demands that you pretend it’s not a game.
- To enjoy flights of fancy, learn how to land them: Again, use entertainment as a model. You step into it; you step back out of it, back into reality. The better you get at distinguishing fantasy from reality the farther out you can safely go on your flights of fancy. “Don’t try this at home” isn’t just a joke. It’s a sobering reminder of the difference that makes a crucial difference to how well you manage the relationship between fantasy and reality.
- Does entertainment make us more broad-minded? It’s not that simple: Researchers have long speculated that fiction broadens the mind, giving us insight into other worlds and others lives. There’s something to it, though perhaps not as much as we’d hope. It breeds empathy, but empathy cuts two ways. Torturers and con-artist are masters of empathy. They feel your pain so well they know exactly how to exact it, exactly how to break your will and your heart.
- This is us: You are all the characters: Aesop’s fables are some of the oldest known entertainment, tales told by a wise man to his king, as a form of subtle guidance. The subtlety was in the displacement, the cover it gave Aesop. If the king got touchy, the fact that it was just a story was Aesop’s cover story. He wasn’t necessarily saying that the king was the fox in the story. Identifying with all of the fictional characters was optional. Jung argued that all of the characters in a story are parts of our own character, but again, identifying with all characters is optional. It’s much easier to identify with heroes than villains so most people do. ISIS fighters identified with Hollywood heroes, not villains. You owe it to yourself, your loved ones, and everyone to muse about your likeness to all the characters in entertainment, not just the winners but the losers, not just the heroes but the villains. To embrace your shadow, the dark side of your human nature, see the ugly characters in your too.
- Virtual virtue vs. virtual vice: Fiction is full of virtual virtue and virtual vice, good guys doing good things; bad guys doing bad things. We can and should identify with both but not the same way. Virtual virtue should motivate real-world virtue. Virtual vice should enable us to get our vice-rocks off in the virtual world instead of the real world. It’s easy (and dangerous) for some of us to get them confused, for example, doing violence in video games that motivates us to do violence in reality, or feeling all virtuous for having identified with a hero in a movie and therefore feeling like we’ve already done our part and don’t need to be virtuous in the real world. Try to keep the difference in mind. Get your vice-rocks off in fantasy, not reality, but don’t get your virtue rocks off just in fantasy, but in reality too.
- Mainlining human nature concentrate: An entertaining story is not just a story. It’s a chance to live vicariously, a meditation on a high dose of human nature. Read between the lines for what you can learn about reality from entertainment. For example, the richest entertainment isn’t just good guys vs. bad guys. Instead, everyone’s a mixed bag. This is one of the reasons Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics marvel will be missed. In a way he was our St. Paul, serving up healthy religion for our times, vivid fictional, pantheistic morality tales, the superhero gods all troubled by human foibles like the rest of us.
- Take entertainment more seriously: The good news is that you’re not just frittering your time away when you get entertained. It’s therapy. We all need some fantasy. It’s good medicine, not just a time-killer. The bad news is that the medicine can become a killer. Our fate depends on which prevails: Using our wits to face reality or to devise clever, fictional rationalizations for ignoring reality.
Enjoy your flights of fancy and then land smoothly back on the ground, reality, where you have to pay attention if you want to earn a long healthy life full of flights of entertaining fancy.
Here’s a video quickstart users manual for the new human toolkit, language, how to use it safely for entertaining flights of fantasy.