To us, it was home

A couple of years ago, our church had a guest pastor who told an interesting story about his childhood. He was an older gentleman, probably in his late seventies or early eighties. He said that in the neighborhood where he grew up, people left their doors unlocked because there wasn’t anything inside worth stealing. The families worked hard and often relied on each other to make ends meet. While it would be considered a poor neighborhood by today’s standards, he and his friends didn’t see it that way. They played games in the streets and in each other’s yards. If he was considered poor, he didn’t know it. In fact, as he put it, “I didn’t know I lived in the ‘hood until I started watching TV. To us it was home.”

Hollywood is not reality

What we are presented on television is not real. It’s a fantasy. Make-believe. Hollywood is selling us on their version of the ideal life. They create celebrities, they create relationships, they create environments that aren’t real. What they create are illusions. And the problem with this, as Seth Godin said more eloquently than I can, is that the fantasies Hollywood creates gets in the way of us embracing reality. We start to think that we only succeed if we are thin, in shape, and good looking. Our success depends on having a mansion in the hills, vacation houses, expensive cars to drive around in, and effortless relationships. We see it happen all the time in the movies and on television, so why shouldn’t it happen for us. The more we watch, the more we’re led to believe that we’re living in the ‘hood.

But wait, you say, what about all of those reality television shows? Those are real people in real-life situations. Well, think again.

Let’s take the HGTV show House Hunters as an example. Couples are shown three houses and then pick their favorite. It seems effortless, easy, and fun. Anyone who has ever been in the market for a house only wishes it could be that easy, because it isn’t. The way House Hunters really works is that the couple sorts through many houses, a LOT more than 3, and then buys one. The producers find two more houses for the prospective couple to look at, after they’ve completed their original purchase, to make it look like they are deciding between 3 properties. Is it a harmless deception? Maybe. Is it reality? Hardly.

What about shows like Survivor, Big Brother, Biggest Loser and others. These must be real, right? Not so fast. The producers shoot and sift through hundreds of hours of footage each week to come up with story lines and characters that may or may not match what actually happened. It’s amazing what a good writer and creative editing can do to change what actually happened into an entertaining “reality” TV show.

And don’t even get me started on shows like Shark Tank and Keeping up with the Kardashians. I’m not even going to go there.

Hollywood is in the business of entertaining

The point is that Hollywood is in the business of entertaining. Their job is to capture as much of your attention as possible. The more attention they capture the more money they make. How? By selling your attention to marketers for top dollar.

In the past, the outlets for attention were limited. There were 4-5 television channels available, radio stations, newspapers, magazines, and billboards. Today, the number of outlets is limitless. There are hundreds of television stations vying for our attention. There’s social media, websites, email, and mobile apps. We are constantly being bombarded with marketing messages. It’s all around us and impossible to escape. The techniques that were used to sell us on “tobacco, bacon and the ideal of thin women” over one hundred years ago are alive and well. The messages are pervasive and more powerful than ever. A well planned media campaign can mobilize millions and shift political fortunes, as we’ve seen in the last three (or more) US presidential elections.

Even our news outlets have become another form of Hollywood entertainment. The sheer volume of news has forced a race to the bottom where news outlets aren’t focused on reporting facts. They are focused on sensationalized headlines that grab people’s attention. Why? Reporting facts doesn’t make news organizations money, grabbing people’s attention does. It’s an unfortunate outcome, but one that the late Neil Postman foreshadowed almost 40 years ago in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.

The distortion of reality has become so pervasive that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish fact from fiction. Our minds are constantly being bombarded with propaganda and manipulative messages. I’ve tried my best to combat the effects by pulling back on my media consumption, but I still have to catch myself from time to time. When I hear myself telling people that I’ve read something on the internet or saw something on TV, I have to remember that I’m relaying a version of reality that someone else has fed to me. Unless we decide to check out and go completely off the grid, we are all of susceptible to the manipulative messages of Hollywood.

So, what is real?

The point the pastor was making in the above story is that what we see on television and in the movies is not reality. It’s fine to be entertained by Hollywood. There’s nothing wrong with it. But as he pointed out, we need to be aware that what we watch on television, what we see in the movies, and even much of what we read on the internet is not reality. It is a form of entertainment.

What is real is how we choose to spend our time. It’s in our interactions and relationships with family and friends. It’s the work we choose to do and the contributions we choose to make to society. These are the things that matter. These things make up our reality.

I’m not here to blame Hollywood. I’m not vilifying them. I’m here to raise awareness that they are in the entertainment business, that we get to choose how to spend our time and attention, and that we should choose to spend it wisely on the things that matter to us. We should spend it in the reality that is around us and not in the fantasies that Hollywood so artfully and skillfully creates for us.

And when you do, you just might realize that you have everything you need. You don’t live in the ‘hood. You live in a home. A home created by you, your family, and your friends.