Thursday, 9 March 2017

When did it become cool to binge? Bingeing, Fasting and Freedom

By Isaac Withers

When I was in my first year of university, I did a lot of TV watching. But I had some good reasons to. Firstly, I had a lot of free time on my hands, and everyone I knew seemed to be telling me about a good show I ‘had to watch’. And they weren’t entirely wrong, we’re still in what’s being called a ‘golden age’ for TV shows, with big Hollywood actors signing up for recurring TV roles instead of movies (think Kevin Spacey House of Cards, or Matthew McConaughey in True Detective who arguably started the trend).
So I got in deep. Occasionally two deep. I remember watching the first three Game of Thrones seasons in three weeks, I got really into Daredevil and Peaky Blinders, and I got through True Detective’s first season in just three days. Which was rough. And yet, that last one is still kind of a fond memory if a hazy one. Sitting in a lecture sleep deprived but proud of my accomplishment and having enjoyed the indulgence of going all out on a show.

That habit has become how this generation watches TV: when we want, and however much we want. It’s kind of the whole basis of the extremely popular Netflix streaming service. And yet, as convenient and fun as that whole set up is, bingeing is also jokingly know for its withdrawal symptoms, reaching the end and craving more episodes, or filling that void with the next series. This has become a bit of a brag too, one I made in the past, there’s a pride to conquering a whole show fast, and moving to the next. And the joke only really works because everyone knows it’s unhealthy and no one really claims otherwise. Heck, it's got a whole culture of internet memes built around it.

Anyway, about two weeks ago, a guest speaker came from the Birmingham Oratory to our Uni chaplaincy to give a talk about Lent and to my surprise, he brought up this phenomenon in modern TV consumption, and talked at length about Netflix. But he set the discussion of bingeing right up against the practise of fasting, and it was such a stark comparison.

I know that when I’ve fasted from food for faith reasons (nowhere near as often as I’ve binged watched TV), it's made me appreciate food a lot more. On fast days I can look at a salad and there’ll be fireworks going off in my brain (and salads are just leaves in a bowl…). That feeling of appreciation is so far the opposite of the binge, just firing through something I should be valuing more slowly but can’t help. I know that on a deeper level, being in control of my habits makes me just feel better about myself, in a way that the easy, shared jokes about episode withdrawals never did.

So I haven’t really binged a show since second year, but there’s still something that interests me about how it became ok- no, cool, for me to do that. I think the heart of it is the discussion of what freedom is. 

In my first year, I also really found it hard to just go to sleep at a reasonable time, mainly because there was no one telling me to. Something my parents had had control of for most of my life, I now had the decision on. And so I made the opposite decision, and it cost me. I missed a fair few of my lectures, and knowing I’d had no good reason to, I’d feel down about that, and then my day would feel a bit rubbish, and my body clock would be way out, so I couldn’t help but repeat the pattern. It was how I was choosing to express that freedom, and it sucked.

Fundamentally, I think bingeing is socially accepted now, because we really don’t like to be told what to do, to be controlled, we like personal autonomy. And there’s so many areas where this freedom can go wrong, think the hours spent on social media by all of us, the endless funny videos on YouTube and even the massive statistics on visits to porn sites everyday. It’s socially acceptable to give however much time we want to all of these things, because it's our choice to. But we might need to start a new movement to argue for the opposite: fasting, the anti-binge movement.

That’s surely what Lent is, and reaching the end of those 40 days having had freedom from something that once dictated our hours to us always feels better on a deep human level, than the satisfaction of the next episode. What’s ironic is that these areas where we lose control and abandon to the binge, can so quickly start to feel like they are removing our freedom to not return to them. One of the readings at Mass at the beginning of this Lent was this.

'No one can serve two masters. 
Either you will hate the one and love the other, 
or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. 
You cannot serve both God and money.’'

Matthew 6:24

As soon as I heard that, I knew exactly what I had to give up for Lent (it wasn’t money), but the idea of two masters immediately made me aware of what I was spending too much time on unhealthily, and I knew it was obstructing me from living my faith well.

However, in the discussion of bingeing and fasting, we can’t forget feasting. That’s like leaving out the ghost of Christmas Present, and he’s the fun one of the three. We’re not supposed to be down about fasting because as well as it being freeing, this whole Lent thing started with pancakes and the feast of Easter is on the horizon. We as Catholics seem to know what we’re doing when it comes to feasting, we just maybe need to reclaim fasting a lot more. Heck, even Jesus was criticised for not fasting enough (Matthew 11:19), but he was also very clear that fasting should not look like a drag.

'When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, 
for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. 
Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.'

Matthew 6:16

But just imagine if not only was fasting not sombre, but one day as cool as bingeing is right now. That’s the kind of cultural shift we need. 

Anyway, for now, enjoy the fast, and stay free.

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