Go Edify Yourself

Reading poetry can be edifying.

Edification – This word has always attracted me, because it sounds so much better than “self-improvement,”  a phrase associated with motivational clap-trap sold by hucksters. Self-improvement books are like diet books – their profusion attests to their lack of effectiveness. If they really work, why are new ones always coming out?

To edify, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to instruct and improve especially in moral and religious knowledge : uplift; also enlighten, inform.” Well, I could do without moralizing and religion, but the word still expresses an important goal in my life. I want to be edified, and to edify others. (Edify, which once meant “to build,” is also where we get the word “edifice.”)

When I channel surf, it often hits me how unhealthy entertainment has become. I’ve always liked applying the phrase “mental pollution” to what I see – what’s on television not only wastes your time, it harms you psychologically, albeit in a subtle manner. I seldom feel better after aimlessly watching television. Ask yourself, as you view the images  – is this improving me in any way? Chances are, it isn’t.

Granted, entertainment is an escape, and it’s fun to watch, even if it’s something trashy. Everyone is entitled to an occasional guilty pleasure.

And announcing that you don’t watch television at all is tantamount to a proclamation of snobbery, and I wouldn’t advise it. (And don’t use words like “tantamount,” either.) It’s also a rather dubious claim. We all watch television.

Oddly enough, even committed philistines tacitly acknowledge that television is bad, by consistently downplaying their addiction. No one says: “Television? Oh yeah, I watch a lot of TV! A LOT. Other than work, it’s what I do!’ Highbrow types will admit to viewing, but will excuse their weekend binge as an attempt catch up with a season of their favorite, usually critically acclaimed show (Mad Men, etc.).

I like what environmentalist Bill McKibben said about television. He described it as a “time out” – and everybody could use one now and then. The problem is when the time-outs last longer than the game. Author Ray Bradbury likens television to a Medusa that turns millions to stone every night (see his short story, The Murderer). And then there’s my favorite, most devastating critic of television, Neil Postman, who notes that “Television doesn’t ban books — it merely displaces them.” The fact that DVDs are divided into chapters confirms his observation.

Television has its place, but it’s like sugar. Mostly empty calories, and it makes you flabby after a while, both physically and mentally. You’re an adult, not a child, so seek out some nutrition, if not from my pretentious blog that wants to edify you, then somewhere else. Find something. Don’t just escape from life via entertainment, enrich it with something that speaks to you.

Poetry speaks to me. It is an antidote to all things modern and unhealthy.

It is a clear spring in a world of polluted digital streams.

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