Netflix or Nothing: Our Need for the Void

Netflix is the Devil!

Is that a startling enough headline for you?  I’m exaggerating, of course, but only by a little.

Where are the horns?

Personally, it’s easy for me to lose hours upon hours to Netflix or other similar streaming services.  Even when there wasn’t a show that got me excited, I would come back like the bored man to his fridge.  I know what’s in the fridge – I’ve basically memorized it – but I’m still hungry, so I’ll close the door for a while, sink further into boredom-hunger and then lower my standards a little more before opening the door yet again.  I know that not everyone shares my tolerance for long periods of visual stimulation through TV or video games, but I also know that the way it affects me is not entirely unique.

You see, there is another habit I used to have that exists in an inverse correlation to Netflix (or Netflix-like) consumption: reading.  As this article from the Washington Post points out, not reading is really not good for your soul and for our culture.  In High School, I would often join the “millionaire club,” which was a reward for those who had read over a million words in that year.  Now?  There are 5 books on my night stand, all of which I have been “reading” for over 3 months.  I spend less time with those books than the deadbeat dad who only has visitation rights after his divorce.  And it’s not for lack of time.  In that same time period I have discovered and completed multiple seasons of multiple shows, not to mention all the series I’ve failed to complete and the movies whose number I have not counted.

And the worst part is… I haven’t failed in my other responsibilities.  Say mass every day?  Check.  Hear confessions?  Check.  Visit people because they’re sick or need a house blessed?  Check.  Meetings, Marriage Prep, and Altar Server training?  Check, check, check again.  For the most part, I do my job.  But that isn’t enough!  I have this bare minimum – kind of framework of prayer and required work.  Too often, the rest of that time, sometimes multiple hours a day, is totally wasted.  But, as long as never shows in my external life, it’s reeeaally hard to takes seriously how these habits affect my soul.  Some might reply “If you do your job and are a decent guy, what’s the big deal?”  I’m not growing.  Intellectually, spiritually, culturally – I had been stagnant in these areas for a while now.  But, you know what?  Not too long ago, that was not the case.  What changed?

I stopped feeling the void

Yes, stare into the darkness. Feel the emptiness! Then, read a book.

Yeah, that void feeling – something similar to what people call “boredom” – that emptiness that I so often fill with funny clips from Big Bang Theory, is a good thing.  It’s a providential reminder that we are not meant for this life, a kind of anti-worldly-contentment fail-safe.  Before the time of constant, instant gratification, this thorn in my side drove me to look for deeper things.  Doing something like reading a quality books or articles – even when comprehending it was difficult – became more tolerable because I had this driving force behind it.  Directly experiencing the void made me more willing to slog through tough stuff because at least that kind of work was usually rewarded with some new insights or a more mature perspective.

But, even now, the super-stimulating power of instant entertainment undermines all of that.  Millions of man-hours, trillions of dollars, and tons of marketing all conspire to offer a quick way to fill the void.  Now I’m accustomed to so processing so much information so quickly, even if it’s insignificant details about trashy fiction.  So, taking the time to sit and think my way through a quality text – or, heaven forbid, pray a little extra – looks like a monumental task.  It’s like I’ve managed to outrun the hound of heavenly boredom without actually having to run at all.  Now running feels like outright torture.  That’s why Netflix had to go, and thanks be to God it’s gone.  Yet, the effects are still there; motivation for real life growth is still not where it could be.

And there’s research to back up that experience

We can see this at the physiological level.  Apparently, large amounts of screen time literally impair your ability to engage with reality.  Sure, the article is focused on children, but I can say from experience that even as an adult, this kind of exposure can leave me feeling

“‘comfortable’ in the super-fast pace of screen media stimulation and uncomfortable in the normal pace of everyday life… performance might be high in gaming and internet information processing, but what about performance in low-tech activities such as building relationships? Parenting? Achieving greatness at anything, from sports to music to business…  true, satisfying achievements happen only at the pace of the natural world, not at the artificially accelerated pace of the screened world. They require focus, dedication, persistence and patience – even when the going seems slow, frustrating and boring in the moment.” (Emphasis added)

And that’s just considering a natural kind of greatness.  How much greater is the tragedy when you consider these things in light of eternity!  If doing well in this life requires embracing the void we call “boredom,” what should we say about the expectations for heavenly reward?  True, we do not earn heaven the way we seem to earn a promotion at work, but Jesus is pretty blunt about the price for getting in to his Kingdom.

And that’s how we can start to see the wisdom of a silent retreat, or the Church’s repeated call for more silence and less gadgetry.  Cooperating with Christ for our own salvation is a daunting task, and it’s only more daunting if we lose the very real motivation provided by experiencing the void of eternal desire.  That Washington Post article I cited at the beginning recommends you build a “fortress” wherein you can find quiet for reading and reflection.  I heartily agree.  But to do that, I’m pretty sure you are going to have to take a long, hard look at the darkness inside the walls of that fortress and tell yourself, repeatedly, that you want that void.  If it’s Netflix or Nothing, then, for your soul’s sake, you really should choose Nothing.  Because, well, like it or not, you need the void.

Posted by Fr. Albert

Fr. Alexander Albert is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. He was ordained a priest in June of 2016 after receiving an M.A. in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary. He currently serves as the Parochial Vicar for St. Peter's Catholic Church in New Iberia, Louisiana. He takes an interest in Spiritual Theology and has his own blog, Albert The Ordinary, where he posts homilies and analyzes movies.