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Tom Morris


Keeping Up With the Kierkegaardians

Posted: 03/23/10 05:24 PM ET

Imagine a reality show on TV about a family of philosophers. I see an elegant house in the suburbs of LA filled with dark haired, well-put-together Danes obsessed with appearances and realities in our time. The kids all want to make a splash for wisdom in the culture, and show us, the viewing audience, some of the best ways in our lives to take the famous Leap of Faith, whether that means going for your dream of opening your own clothing store, like Khloe and Kourtney Kierkegaard, or working hard to pass an ambitious health care bill in the face of vehemently strong opposition.

At a time when political gatherings give crowd psychology a bad name and celebrity fads and fashions cry out for the sort of existentialist critique that could reestablish a sense of true individuality and value in our time, you can flip the channels all day and night without finding one clear antidote to our current cultural poisons.

But, I know -- there's a good reason why there aren't any reality shows about philosophers. If I let the cameras follow me around all day, they could fill entire episodes with me sitting motionless at my desk, staring out the window in deep thought, or going into "The Thinker" pose on a bench at the beach. You can guess the ratings of that.

But as a matter of fact, if you know how to watch, our current crop of reality shows can't escape philosophy. They all depict some form of the human condition. Greed, ambition, aspiration, obsession, love, lust, envy, anger, encouragement, friendship, pettiness, and crass manipulation fill our screens in a way that's capable of generating real conversations about many of the things that matter in our lives. You can pinpoint your own worldview tendencies, whether you've previously thought them through or not, by noting how you react to the dramas that unfold in these shows, however spontaneous or scripted they might be. And you can get to know others better through their responses. It's even possible to learn something about life, as we see some facet of human nature reflected through the prism of the relationships played out before us on the screen.

Many of the most enjoyable television shows of the past have sparked philosophical conversations in families, among friends, and in the workplace that have turned them into more than the simple entertainment they could have been. But the role they played in the culture was something we were all responsible for. It wasn't a matter for just the writers, producers, and actors involved. We all helped Norman Lear make All In The Family a doorway into belief-altering and life-changing conversations. We watched and we talked. What television shows have played that role in your life in the past? Some still can.

One of Søren Kiekegaard's spiritual predecessors, the seventeenth century scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, wrote in his personal notes, "How hollow and full of trash is the heart of man!" It's no wonder that even the bottom end of the reality-programming spectrum, rightly regarded as "Trash TV," has become so popular. There's something in human nature that craves a glimpse of the odd and extreme behavior that life in this world can occasionally produce. The first epic poem we know of, the ancient story of King Gilgamesh, launched almost five thousand years ago the narrative genre of "Boys Behaving Badly." Cautionary tales based on extreme behavior and its consequences have captivated us ever since. Stories of lavish wealth, dire poverty, big scale celebrity, and grandiose ambition out of control, among other forms of extreme life experience and action, get our attention and can help us to think about what we truly want in life.

A few days ago, I wrote here about "Happiness and Deep Conversations." I've had so many people tell me since then that they wish they had more such conversations in their daily lives. Many say they once did, in college, or graduate school. But now, they find themselves nearly drowning in busyness, and kept afloat in their relationships by no more than small talk. The simple truth is that we can use even the most banal and mundane things around us, like our favorite TV show, or almost anything we've seen where some facet of the human condition is on display, to spark such conversations. Once we get beyond the "ick-factor" or the "I can't believe they did that" response, we can often end up having a meaningful conversation about things that matter.

So my recommendation is this: Feel free to become a bit more philosophical about the shows you watch on TV, the movies you see, the music you listen to, the things you read, and what you see in the world around you as you move through the day. That doesn't mean you have to be ponderous, pedantic, profound, or even particularly deep in your own musings over what you experience. But when you've cultivated a reliable habit of reflecting on what you encounter during the day, or the evening, you can bring that heightened sensibility into the service of others, who might themselves be secretly eager to talk to someone about the life realization they just had watching Jersey Shore or Dog the Bounty Hunter or Kimora's Life in the Fab Lane or Gene Simmons Family Jewels.

Whether Keeping Up With The Kierkegaardians ever gets the Green Light for a season on cable, we still stand a good chance to be able to philosophize around the flat screen. And, who knows, as we learn to take advantage of the contemplative opportunities over what we see and hear in our own homes when we sit down together for a little easy entertainment, there's a chance we can come to be counted among "The Real House-Wise of New York City," or Orange County, or wherever we live.


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