We’ve all been MTV’d. We grew up with pop drivel invading every dark corner of our media-saturated lives: The glowing box in the living room showcasing ideal families in ideal homes living ideal lives. The car stereo blaring bland top-40-isms during rush-hour traffic. Newspapers foretelling inescapable doom and irremediable despair without any hope of salvation or redemption. Magazines twaddling the latest gossip about such and such and what’s his name.
Our collective brains have soaked up the meaningless muck and are now waterlogged with platitudes and cultural niceties and the false expectations of the way life should be.
American Express: Never leave home without it.
Coca-Cola: It’s the real thing.
McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.
We know these corporate slogans—and many others—by heart. We’ve let them in without even knowing we were letting them in. We’ve accepted these mantras as maxims by which we should make our decisions.
If someone continuously repeats a lie, does it eventually become the truth? Is it not safe to leave our homes without our credit cards? Is the realest thing in our lives a carbonated aluminum can of sugar? Do we really love the golden arches?
Even Pringles admits they know we are programmed: Once you pop, you can’t stop! Sadly, they’re right. It’s difficult to shake the sedative weight of everything we’ve learned from pop culture. Fortunately, though, once you go pop, you can stop.
We never opted-in to pop culture: it had us in its sinister clutch at birth, an invisible umbilical cord no one thought to cut.
After all, what’s the harm in a little TV, in a little late-night news, in catching up on the day’s current events? Nothing. But when we simply accept the idiot box’s catchy one-liners as epigrams by which we must make our most important decisions, we get lost quickly.
It’s easy to be passively entertained and informed, accepting catchphrases to be self-evident. Even the news has to be “info-tainment” these days so it’s more palatable to the casual listener (read: consumer).
That’s because it’s easy to be entertained, but it’s hard work to seek out the truth, it’s difficult to form our own opinions based on multiple points of view, and it’s much easier to allow someone else—be it Rush Limbaugh, Keith Olbermann, or a faceless corporation with a seemingly endless marketing budget—to form an opinion for us.
Besides the problems of its inherently passive nature, today’s commercial-riddled pop-information can’t inform us of life’s larger problems, of our deepest troubles and fears, of what it actually means to be alive—what it means to be a human being in the most complex time in human history.
The American Dream is broken—it has been for decades, and attempting to go back to “the way things were” will not fix it. “Fixing it” would only perpetuate the inevitable, making it worse in the long run. The longer we put off our troubles, the harder they are to deal with.
Instead, as a culture, we must take responsibility. We must fix ourselves. We must create the disciplines necessary to be alive in this complex world. We must become aware of what’s going on around us so ultimately we can be aware of what’s going on inside us—only then will we know what’s truly important.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.