Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!
– Matthew 7:13-14 (The Sermon on the Mount)
When I was in primary school, Neopets were a massive craze. I assiduously avoided the game, knowing that, with my perfectionist tendencies, I would probably spend hours trying to win as many trophies as possible and keeping my virtual pets well-fed. It was far better to spend my time reading twenty library books a week.
This salutary abstinence lasted for a decade, until a friend asked me to look after her Neopets while she went on holiday overseas. I just had to collect all the Advent calendar freebies.
Sure enough, I became obsessed with collecting the daily freebies (not just the Advent items, but all the freebies throughout the virtual world), amassing a collection of virtual books for the Neopets’ gallery, and playing games to amass virtual money. I even entered art and writing competitions on the site, attempting to win more trophies for my friend. In the end, I only managed to end the addiction by giving up Neopets for the following Lent.
Neopets wasn’t entirely a waste of time – there were word games, and the competitions fostered admirable skills and creativity in the young players. However, looking back on the hours spent repetitively clicking on various pages to collect non-existent goodies, I do think I could have spent that time far better – learning to play the piano, or cooking with my father, or reading real books. But those activities take way more effort, and once you develop a habit of gorging on junk food, it’s difficult to switch to a nutritious diet.
Seeking Fulfillment in Fakery
Now, young Japanese women are turning to virtual boyfriends to satisfy their desire for affection. They find that these “perfect” lovers are more attentive than human boyfriends. Porn is also destroying human relationships in Japan.
“Early Christianity’s struggle with idolatry bears striking resemblance to today’s fight with pornography. The development of Christian art and images also informs the conversation about how to catechize on pornography.
Pornography today mirrors all three historical concerns from early Christianity. Viewing pornography leads to an idolatrous turning toward earthly pleasures and away from divine things. Pornography is also deceptive. What is being portrayed is not the reality of sex. Viewers, especially younger viewers, often mistake what they are seeing as what sex is or should be like. Finally, pornography is seductive, creating emotions and desires that are not connected to real life, but rather buy into a fantasy. There are plenty of early warnings against visual art, particularly idols. Christians, however, are not actually anti-image.”
– China Weil, “How to Talk to Young People about the Dangers of Pornography”, Church Life Journal
In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle depicts a hellish planet where everything is controlled by a central mind. Children are not allowed to play freely, but have to bounce their balls in perfect synchrony or face painful punishment. This relentless demand for perfection has killed all human spirit on the planet, reducing the populace to robots governed by fear.
We humans have been granted the intelligence and capability to modify our environments, creating infrastructure and technologies that make life convenient. However, when we seek to eliminate the uncertainties and discomforts which come with any human life, and make everything bend to our own will, we end up with a sterile, empty mockery of life.
True Love and Fulfillment are Found in Reality
Christians know that this world is passing, and we look forward to eternal life. However, we are called to be in the world, and to be loving and responsible stewards of God’s creation. We cannot afford to fritter our time away in chasing after the unreal, becoming isolated addicts imprisoned in fantasy. The path to salvation lies through the concrete reality which we have been given. It is only in this reality that we can truly mature as humans and learn to sacrifice for other real persons.
Living in the real world involves denying ourselves and dealing charitably with uncomfortable, unwanted intrusions into our lives, like lonely friends, crabby relatives, and the needs of parents, spouses, siblings, children, and others in our communities. When we avoid our responsibility to serve one another, we often end up hurting ourselves and others. The harm may not be as extreme as that done to children whose gaming parents let them starve. But each of us has been given particular talents and resources which are not to be hidden under a bushel, buried in the ground, or sunk into a virtual world – we are meant to use them to build the Kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 10:9), within us (Luke 17:21).
Living in reality does not come with the instant gratification and manufactured dopamine hits of virtual worlds. It usually involves suffering, annoyance and disappointment. However, it also comes with beautiful surprises, profound joy, the satisfaction of comforting or edifying others and being edified in return, and unexpected blessings. It also comes with a deeper consciousness of the presence of God in our lives and the lives of those around us.
This Lent, let us seek for more ways to serve others in real life, and seek God’s Face in reality.
Communities that are great, that are living, never function with perfect smoothness and consistency. When we seek something that runs with the smoothness and precision of a well-oiled machine, we get precisely that — a machine, not a living community. A church that functions perfectly will not be great and living; it will be small and dead.
– Fr. Michael J. Himes
My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O, my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today!
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux