America is obsessed with a husband and wife who are driving their family off a cliff. Jon and Kate Gosselin were just a nice couple with a lot of kids. Then television got a hold of them. Funny thing what fame can do. It put Susan Boyle in an institution after just a few of her fifteen minutes had ticked by on Britain's Got Talent. And it's tearing the once-happy Gosselins apart, even as the disintegration of their marriage proves the largest rating bonanza for the TLC network in its history.
But at what cost?
TLC is a moral network. I know because they spent millions of dollars sending me around the country healing families in crisis on Shalom in the Home and we are about to launch a new program devoted to helping married couples whose sex lives have disappeared. And yes, their agenda is to make a TV show. But there were many occasions when after a few days of filming the network told me they had the show they needed but I insisted on staying a few days longer to help a particular family through its issues and no one objected even though it cost the network thousands more dollars. On other occasions during counseling alarming facts about particular families came to light during the filming. But we kept it off the air, even though the shock-value would have been great for ratings.
So why this time, when it comes to Jon and Kate, is the network sitting back and letting a family implode, especially when no one doubts that fame and fortune have played an important role in the family's demise? That question has been put to me by hundreds of our viewers who write to me, baffled that TLC has done nothing to save the marriage, if indeed it can still be salvaged at all. I cannot answer that question and I believe that TLC has a responsibility to try and help this family.
Some want the show taken off the air. They feel that reality TV in general is the real enemy, exploiting innocent people's problems to draw viewers. While I don't want to comment on Jon and Kate in particular, there can be no question that a great deal of reality TV is inane, embarrassing, and exploitative. So why, aside from the obvious ego considerations (there are no serious financial considerations as these shows make very little money), do I serve as a reality TV host?
Two reasons. First, let's get real. There is a greater chance of Jimmy Hoffa being found on the surface of the moon than networks dropping the 'unscripted' format. So we may as well utilize the genre to inspire families to fix rather than ignore their problems. Reality TV can help.
Second, and more important, what reality TV, Facebook, and Twitter all point to is a desire on the part of the average citizen to be the center of attention. Perhaps it's the fact that our parents missed too many of our Little League games or that our mature relationships are often so loveless and broken. Whatever the reason, there is a dearth of love in our lives and so we compensate with the poor man's version of affection, namely, attention. We all want to be celebrities. And our lust for fame has made us into a generation of narcissists who update our Twitter status with what we ate for breakfast and how are hemorrhoids are faring. But in the course of sharing the details of our days with others, believe or not we have stumbled on a solution for one of the biggest problems of human existence: growing bored with our own lives.
Time was when everyday life was seen as so monotonous that you had to retreat into Star Trek science fiction in order to keep things interesting. Teens especially spent huge chunks of their time immersed in fantasy video games. But along came reality TV and demonstrated that things as simple as speaking to your spouse and being raised by your parents could actually be interesting.
One of the things that most undermines a marriage is when a husband and wife fail to highlight the small things. A man comes home from work, his wife asks him how his day went and he offers a monosyllabic retort, "Same." Conversation over. In truth his wife is fascinated by the small things of her husband's day. He's the one who thinks it's boring. Indeed it can be said that in life there are no small things. The good life accrues to those who see the ordinary as extraordinary, the natural as miraculous, and the everyday as unique. Couple are held together not by the giant canvass of momentous experience but by the small fibers of everyday occurrence.
This is also an important lesson for our teenagers who too often make the mistake of idolizing famous rock stars because of the perceived glamour of the celebrity's red-carpeted life. While the Jonas brothers are singing in front of fifty thousand crazed girls, Sheila is making her bed and taking out the garbage. But if, by some mechanism, sharing the experience of doing something as ordinary as homework could be seen as glamorous and something others wish to read, perhaps, the teenager might be reengaged in their own lives instead of living vicariously through a damaged star.
Reality TV might just bring us back to reality. Facebook and Twitter might just lead us to appreciate the small stuff, so long as we don't go off the deep end and make them into super time-wasting indulgences of unfettered narcissism that preclude us from ever meeting real people.
It helps that Twitter let's you post only 140 characters at a time, a near impossibility for a Rabbi and a clear indication of anti-Semitic intent on the part of its creators.
So let me practice my brevity by summarizing my points in Twitter format:
1. Reality is always more interesting than fantasy.
2. Little things are really big things. Nothing in life is inconsequential.
3. Fans are good. Followers are better. Friend me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter.
There, all done. Now back to writing my twenty-page Sabbath sermon. I know you can't wait.
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