From the March, 2006 issue of Touchstone

Taking the Tube Underground by Anne Marie Waters

Taking the Tube Underground

Anne Marie Waters on Removing the Television from the Family Hearth

Mom, there is something I want to tell you.” My usually thoughtful, and occasionally lucid, little boy waited dramatically with a grave expression on his pink, sweaty five-year-old face as I unpacked the recently delivered moving boxes. Jack had been playing outside in the August heat and meeting the other young residents of our new neighborhood.

“It’s something I’ve noticed, about us, that is different from the other kids,” he said somberly. Here goes, I thought. We homeschool. We say grace. We go to church. Well, it was bound to come up sometime. “Mom, everyone else has their TV on the main level in the family room. And, mom,” he paused once more for effect, “ours is in the basement.”

His Strange Family

Now, just so this is clear, our basement is finished, like a den, with carpet, air conditioning, a sofa, etc. We’d certainly never want to see our precious babes forced to watch their Bob the Builder and Monsters, Inc. DVDs in anything less than stereo sound on leather furniture.

We’d not committed the heresy of relegating the television to the garage or, worse yet, the trash pile. But apparently even removing it from the place of prominence once held by the family hearth made my kindergartener aware that his family was an anomaly, strangers in a strange land, in the world but not of it.

Since the inception of “National Turn Off the TV Week” in April, I have read more than a few articles by individuals who took the “challenge” to unplug the tube for seven days and were thrilled with the effects on their home life. Other friends have kept the TV off for a full month and attested to its blessing on their marriages, sleep patterns, productivity, and spiritual life.

To hear some of these testimonials, one might think they’d be crazy to go back to watching hours of television every day, given the benefits of watching no TV. But to a man, each of these testimonials has ended with the admission that such divine bliss as experienced by cutting off the television “has to end sometime.” You can almost hear the wistful sighs.

But why—why must we bring back the TV? Are we really so enslaved to the TV that we can’t envision life without its daily numbing effects? Or are our lives so dull or hopeless that we must spend every evening vicariously living through TV characters?

I still remember the arguments my husband and I had early in our marriage when money was so tight. Every month, when we wrote the check to the cable company, he’d suggest canceling our service. It was $41 a month, but to cut cable in our area of the country meant cutting not only the cable news to which we political junkies had become addicted for hours a night, but also all network TV reception.

This, I could not imagine. I actually started to panic and had to scramble for my asthma inhaler to continue normal breathing.

No Changes

I recall the evening my husband sat on the floor, packing up as we prepared to move out of our apartment and into our first house, fingering some of the great classics of literature he owned as he pulled them from shelves and placed them into boxes. “I never have time to read this stuff,” he mused. “But, back when I did, it really stuck with me, you know? You don’t forget the great books—they change who you are.”

I begrudgingly had to admit to myself that I couldn’t remember one issue from all the political debate and commentary programs I had watched that had really changed my life meaningfully—or even at all. Of all those countless hours I had spent watching television, nothing remained, not one memory of having learned anything true or valuable or lasting. I couldn’t even remember the topics of the shows we had watched just the night before.

When we moved into our new home, I agreed to try life with no cable TV temporarily. For news, I listened to the radio and read the morning paper. We still occasionally watched movies on DVD, but we decided to keep the television in the basement (which is not off the kitchen and, frankly, is not a particularly charming room—if you’re in it then you’re there only to watch a movie.)

We kept the TV out of the main family room for a number of reasons, but primarily we agreed that we didn’t want it to be too easy to have it going all day, nor did we want to arrange our living-room furniture around the assumption that we mostly sat in that room to stare at the TV together. Sure, you can read Dostoyevsky or your Bible with a TV in the room, but at the end of a long day, with the temptation to vegetate looming front and center, I can tell you what I’m going to do.

My objections to television have only grown. Now I’m not just bothered by the medium, which involves nothing but the passive ingestion of visual images, most of them targeted at our emotions rather than our intellect, or by the time wasted, but by the content, which is so often morally debauched and insulting to the viewer’s intelligence.

This is particularly true of those reality shows where you watch other people eat bugs for money, or fight over shallow and not-so-smart people of the opposite sex, or get a new hairdo and some cute clothes and then all their friends stand there clapping for them because . . . of what? Of course some television is an exception—but it is truly just an exception.

A Different Glow

Our family went for a walk after dark not long ago. It was a warm spring night, we had just finished dinner, and our boys, ages five, three, and six months, were begging for a walk around the neighborhood (well, not the six-month-old).

The older two consider it a treat to delay bedtime another half-hour (I know, when you’re a TV-starved kid whose parents keep it in the basement, it doesn’t take much to excite you). As the older boys ran ahead, we were sad to notice that almost every single house we passed in our neighborhood had the curtains drawn, every light in the house off but for the iridescent glow of the big-screen TVs dominating the front living rooms.

It struck me that we don’t even need to do much to be very different from the world, to offer something better than the mediocrity that the world offers. And those of us who want to transform the culture around us need not be known just for our opposition to a corrupt culture.

We can offer something better and richer: homes that beckon with the glow not of our enormous TV sets, but of lives in which imperfect people strive to love and engage with one another by the power of the gospel—homes offering good music, great books, warm conversation, reflection and authenticity and laughter and service and children and activity and true hope . . . the kind of lives not found anywhere but in real life.

Anne Marie Waters is a freelance writer and former associate editor of The Campaign Insider, a trade publication for political consultants. She and her husband recently moved from Washington, D.C., to Birmingham, Alabama, with their three boys. They attend St. Matthew's Anglican Church.

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