While studies reveal “binge-watching” isn’t great for our physical health and social well-being, could it also have an impact on our spiritual health, asks Natalie Acton.
BY Natalie Acton
Beaches. Barbeques. Binge-watching. This was to be the rhythm of my summer. While barbeques and beaches have been a constant of holidays from my earliest memories, binge-watching is a recent addition. Blissful hours of well-earned escapism have become a delicious reward for the busyness of the year just passed. And it seems I’m not alone in this new-found pastime.
Binge-watching, the practice of watching multiple episodes of television programs one after the other, is a recent and growing phenomenon in the on-demand entertainment landscape. With streaming services now making multiple seasons of a seemingly unlimited variety of programs available to smartphones and televisions, tablets and computers, we can ‘binge-watch’ anytime, anywhere. And it seems that a growing number of us are consuming our entertainment in this way – episode, after episode, in a race to the end.
But what impact is this shift having on us?
It seems only logical that any practice beginning with the word “binge” might have some negative side effects. Unsurprisingly, hours spent on the couch, accompanied by unhealthy snacking and late-night vigils as we watch just one more episode into the wee small hours, is not good for us. So too, the impacts on our social well-being have been documented in studies revealing that binge-watching is often an isolating experience, with many users watching hour upon hour alone.
In the lead-up to Easter I began to think about how this growing habit of on-demand consumption, of customised narrative, is the opposite of the way that we are invited into the meta-narratives of our faith. Could the habits of binge-watching also have an impact on our spiritual health?
One of the stated ‘positives’ of binge-watching, according to a recent study, is the sense of “control and power” that a viewer begins to feel by marching their way to the end of a series. There’s little time to get emotionally caught up in the cliff-hangers which are quickly resolved in the passive, yet rapid countdown to the next episode. As the story moves at pace there’s little time to sit with the suspense. Mysteries, which might otherwise cause us to pause, are swiftly revealed in the fast movement forward. In the ‘race to the end’, details of plot and character are rushed over. Interestingly, one study noted that viewers who intermittently sleep between episodes have better recollection of content than those who binge-watch.
At Easter when the Paschal candle is blessed we are reminded that “all time belongs to [God]”. The Easter narrative doesn’t come ‘on-demand’, but by invitation, and it asks of me patience and openness. The Holy Week celebrations and memorials draw me into a story that requires slow movement. While we are Easter people, alive in post resurrection times, my capacity to sit with this story helps me to continue to discover God, in God’s time, in places both light and dark.
As Holy Thursday comes do I dare to enter the story of courage, to stay at the table, and wash the feet of those who may seek to betray or abandon me? Can I remain in the garden, recalling times I too have sat in anguish, holding fast in prayer to what is right, when every fibre of my being seeks to cut and run?
Come Good Friday can I allow myself to feel crestfallen and confused? Can I stand at the foot of the cross, recalling my sense of being forsaken, while God continues loving with arms wide open?
On Holy Saturday can I draw on the patience required to endure the days of liminality, of the not knowing, when God seems nowhere to be found?
If I skip quickly towards the end, with my focus on the ‘season final’, I miss the chance to be captured by each of the moments along the way: moments that remind me of God’s love and constancy; moments that challenge me to continue to seek God even when it’s dark – and to remain, always.
To hold this narrative at arms-length with a sanitised sense of control is to miss the richness that each of these ‘episodes’ offer me in their vivid scriptural depictions and communal experiences. I miss the invitation to enter a story that will take me to my limits, that can shake my very foundations – if I’m brave enough to let it.
In her reflection in the book God for Us, Kathleen Norris notes that Mary Magdalene’s first response to the empty tomb is to race around, getting busy, doing something rather than nothing. It is only when Mary returns to the tomb and stands still, when she allows the moment to engulf her, when she weeps, that she encounters Jesus. So, too, if I am able to stand still, to allow the moments of this journey to touch me deeply, I will be able to engage more fully in my Lenten and Easter journey.
I can’t come to truly know Christ in a race to the end, fast forwarding or jumping past the cliff-hangers and the moments of drama that I’d prefer not to see or experience. It’s only when I stand, open and vulnerable, without the distance of indifference and with my hands off the remote, that I too can experience Christ come to meet me.