If you had invested $100 in the stock market in January of 2000, by December of 2009 it would be worth just $90. This has led some writers to describe the past 10 years as the lost decade. I disagree. Loss assumes an unconscious act of forgetfulness. This, by contrast, was a decade of deliberate escape, an era in time when America chose to enter an alternate reality – a 10-year interval where otherwise responsible citizens decided that the best way to deal with their problems was to simply ignore them.
This decade saw the advent of reality TV, launched by Fox in February 2000 with “Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?,” ushering in an era where people became so unenamored of their own reality that they chose to escape to someone else’s. It was a time where we developed an insatiable appetite for fame and learned to live vicariously through Hollywood glamour and celebrity trainwrecks. It was a decade that ended with us watching an average of five hours of TV per day and where Hollywood broke all previous records as people saw 10 bucks to escape their problems as the ultimate bargain. It was also a decade that saw the advent of texting, allowing people to forgo the immersion of emotion-filled conversation and escape to dry, robotic discourse. Most of all, it was a decade where we shopped until the economy dropped, using consumption as the ultimate escape from unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
The tragedy of having escaped to an alternate reality this past decade is that our problems have only gotten worse. After 9/11, we delegated the fight against terror to a warrior class of just 2 percent of the population and refused to even watch their dead bodies come home for burial, busy as we were watching “Dancing with the Stars.” We then refused to even pay for our wars and just added on the cost to a national debt that at the end of the decade reached the staggering sum of $12 trillion. Having not been content to nearly destroy our entire economy through a truly reckless government and personal spending binge, we added one further escape in the form of Internet porn that, by the end of the decade, had grown, by some reports, to an hour a day for men.
In the meantime our relationships got worse as, for the first time in American history, singles became the majority population in the country. Our country became more politically divided between liberal and conservative, since incessant tension and conflict create a diversionary reality of their own.
And as we escaped and escaped, we scarcely asked ourselves what we were escaping from. What was so uninviting about our lives that we were constantly running from them? What was inadequate about our marriages that we spent much of the decade discussing Brad and Angelina’s non-marriage? What was so boring about our kids that we ended up obsessed with Madonna’s adopted kids? And what gaping hole had opened inside us that required shoving an endless number of electronics, cars, and jewelry just to fill that cavernous space? A year after the collapse our bankers are just as greedy, our shopping patterns nearly as voracious, our politicians’ spending patterns even more reckless.
Some would say that 9/11 was the cause behind the decade of escape. After an end was brought to a lengthy cold war, we thought that danger was finally behind us. So when death rained down from the heavens we responded by checking out. I don’t buy it. Americans have always responded to military crises by deeper engagement rather than mindless escape.
No, the real reason for our escape was the loss of godly meaning from our lives. The material plenty of the ’80s and the ’90s brought about a gradual spiritual corrosion. We began to lust for objects rather than purpose. We allowed our careers to take the place of a genuine life calling. Friends came to supplant family. Relationships based on common interests stood in for commitments based on common purpose.
In the process, we allowed shallowness and laziness to creep into our souls. Escaping was so much easier than engaging. Coming home from work it was a lot easier to pop on the TV than talk to our kids. Taking our spouses out for a weekly movie stood in for having raw and honest conversations. And when all this emptiness depressed us and made us feel lonely, we turned to the impulse purchase as the solution. We went to the mall rather than to the shul, to the cineplex rather than the synagogue.
I was born in the United States and lived here for the first 16 years of my life before studying in Israel and Australia and then serving as rabbi at Oxford for what amounted, in total, to 17 years abroad. I returned with my family just as this decade was beginning. I love America, but I’d have to conclude that for all the technological advances of the past decade, we’ve stagnated socially. We are ending the decade poorer, more ignorant, and more alone.
I am therefore not surprised that an obsession with Michael Jackson is what closed the decade, for Michael became the very symbol of American escape. Rather than confront his mounting debt, he just spent more money to distract himself from looming financial oblivion. Rather than seeking to build inner self-esteem, he turned to plastic surgery to feel better about the man he saw in the mirror. And rather than address the pain that was consuming him, he turned to prescription drugs to medicate it away.
We would be wise to reflect on how tragically his story turned out.
Our country needs a new direction, and now more than ever there is hope for optimism. We have seen how unfulfilling rampant materialism and greed are. We have learned that mindless escapes foster even greater problems. Let this therefore make this coming decade one of re-engagement. Let’s fill the emptiness in our lives not with more shopping but with more communal volunteering. Let’s watch less TV and read more books. Let’s text a little less and open up a whole lot more. Let this be the decade of deeper reflection and self-awareness. And over the next 10 years, let’s learn to be content with our material blessings and pursue instead the riches of the spirit – wisdom, virtue, character, and enlightenment.
After a decade of mindless escapes it’s time we reached for a higher reality.