Just Turn it Off

Far and away, the best film I saw in 2018 was the documentary entitled “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” chronicling the life and work of Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”  I was one of those millions of children that Mister Rogers helped navigate through the difficult process of our growing up. He spent time talking about ordinary things like tying your shoes but didn’t shy away from the tough topics that many adults felt children weren’t ready for. He instinctively knew children needed help dealing with things like death, be it of pets or parents or in war. He even came out of his retirement for an episode on terrorism in 2001.

The documentary detailed Rogers’ efforts to use television for good, and his frustration with those who did the opposite. In one of the clips from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” shown in the film, Rogers reminds children that when they see scary things on television they can “just turn it off.”

It sounds like a simplistic response but how empowering it must have been in Vietnam-era 1960’s and ’70s America, when the worst of each day’s battle in the War was the lead story on the evening news that many families watched over dinner. And it wasn’t only the war; just like today, many of the shows developed for children–and the commercials shown which funded them–focused on violence.

And even if it was simple advice then, how much more important is it in today’s digitally-connected world where so many of us spend so much time in the virtual (aka not real) world of the internet. In the second best film I saw this year, Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” we glimpse a future where the virtual world has become more important to society than the real one. What a refreshing message at the end of the film when the new operators of the online world decide that for two days each week, the virtual world will be closed to ensure people spend more time in what they properly call “the real world.” In 2045, they learn that they can “just turn it off.” I wonder–in 2018 and 2019, will we?

A few days ago, Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson posted a cryptic messages on Instagram about not wanting “to be on this Earth any longer.” He later stated that he’d been bullied for months online and also shared his struggle with mental illness.

While we should all be saddened that someone could suffer so much so they consider taking their own life, Davidson would do well to heed Mister Rogers simple but powerful advice and “just turn it off.” Use of the internet has become so ubiquitous as to give the impression this it is just as real as the actual-real world. But it’s not. In many instances it’s where people go to do things that the constraints of real life would dissuade them from, whether that’s through the use of pornography or the so-called “trolling” behavior of Internet bullying. And it doesn’t have to be something as serious as these. The sheer waste of our precious time with needless shopping or mindless Facebook scrolling are much more serious problems than many of us are willing to admit. In a world where we seem to be more short of time than any other resource, we would all do well to remember Mister Rogers advice that we can “just turn it off.”

2000 years ago, even in sleepy “Little Town of Bethlehem,” there was no room for the Christ Child to be born among His fellow humans, so he was relegated to the place of animals. Most of us now live in much bigger cities and much faster times but we are in no less need of His presence now as the people were in His day. One simple way we can make room for Christ in our lives would be to “just turn it off” when it comes to our internet use.

As we prepare for the birth of our Savior–and as we think of the changes the New Year invites–let’s hear the message of our good friend, Mister Rogers. Like just about anything, the internet can be used for good as well as ill. But also like in all things, an unexamined use of something good can become bad. So let’s examine. Let’s remember the virtual world is just that, and thankfully can just be turned off. Let’s think about our use of the internet and how we can move to more non-use of time in the virtual world to enjoy the real one, the only world where God exists.