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When Michael Harrington wrote Accidental Century in the 1960s, he predicted that work would someday cease to be a component of American life. It was a dystopian scenario that proved unrelated to current reality. However, on one issue Harrington was right: Americans do have more leisure time now than ever before, and as a consequence, recreation has become a national pastime.
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In Aristotelian terms, recreation is desirable because it allows time for contemplation. A restful moment is presumed to be a thoughtful moment, a time away from the quotidian rigors of work. That, of course, is the presumption; the reality is very different. To "re-create" used to mean to reappraise, to put life into perspective. Today, however, recreation means the exact opposite: to pursue play with a passion, to exalt physical activity and virtually shun contemplative moments.
So passionate are Americans about recreation that a consideration of life's meaning is rarely addressed. Why are we here? What mark can we leave? What is the purpose of existence? Such questions have long since been abandoned as Americans have become obsessed with amusing themselves.
Several years ago, Neil Postman wrote the aptly titled book Amusing Ourselves to Death, in which he argued that we had become addicted to our flickering television images. For many Americans, the TV image is indeed a backdrop for life. As soon as one walks into a home, the TV is turned on. Can't miss anything. The world turns on the axis of trifling events for those who want to be amused.
Is it surprising that adolescents are more likely to know the lyrics to rap songs than the Gettysburg Address? Is it any wonder that the peccadilloes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, that trio of vacuous vixens, receives more journalistic ink than dissidents worldwide who put their lives on the line to defend human rights and liberty?
Moreover, in the venues populated by the "masters of the universe," such as Aspen, Sun Valley, and Jackson Hole, to name but a few, conversation invariably turns to white-water rafting, mountain biking, skiing the slopes, golfing, and so on. The rich and famous are preoccupied with using their leisure time to recreate, and since they have more leisure time than the rest of us, they recreate with a vengeance. "I'm busy," noted a friend of mine. "Golf in the morning, horseback riding in the afternoon, hiking in the evening. There aren't enough hours in the day."
If I told my friend that contemplation was good for the soul, he would assure me in unmistakable terms that I was insane. America is on the run, both literally and figuratively. There isn't time to reflect. Those who worship the great god Aerobic spend hours each week running for health and figure. Others move from one activity to another with scarcely the deep breath needed to make sense of all their movement.
I sometimes get the impression that such activity is a device to avoid serious consideration of issues one cannot influence. With radical ideas metastasizing across the globe, it may be a safety valve to avert your gaze, to pretend that the horror that could afflict you can be wished away through the preoccupation with recreation.
Coinciding with this amusement is a form of competition or, at least, invidious comparison. "Oh, you haven't yet climbed Kilimanjaro?" "You should walk across England—I've done it." "You mean you haven't done the Colorado in a raft?" The comments bespeak one-upmanship in the struggle to excel at recreation's next challenge.
Of course, most Americans don't actually participate in these activities. They are largely observers who amuse themselves by attending games, films, and concerts, and by watching TV programs. But whether they actively do things or just passively observe others, most Americans are nevertheless caught in the web of ubiquitous amusement.
Needless to say, I have generalized about leisure activity here, knowing full well that there are worthwhile entertainments that I have overlooked. Even so, I stand by my claims, maintaining that they are largely true. America may not be amusing herself to death, but she is definitely amusing herself to the point where reflection is an unknown act and contemplation is reserved solely for monks. •
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