Sometimes words are very interesting. Take “view,” for example. Its etymology connects it to words like see, know, and vision. An early Latin root is “videre,” and in that we can hear video.
The word “voyeur” is related, from a French history, “one who views or inspects.” We hear this word with sexual connotations, of someone who furtively looks into a window, through the curtains, seeing something “sexual.” We could make sick fun of the French for the way they have used the word, but I won’t.
I thought of this the other night as my daughter Jessica, who is with us for the week here in Steamboat Springs, wanted to watch the final episode of “The Batchlorette.” A serious person with serious commitments to things that matter, as loudly and clearly as she could told us, “I don’t really watch TV at all! Except for this—all my friends are!” So we decided to watch it together, in the name of family vacation and all.
I didn’t last very long. The word “voyeur” kept coming into my mind as I listened into the sad story of a young woman, “batchlorette” as she is, who has spent months sorting out the prospective suitors in her life in full view of millions of viewers (yes, I am using words purposefully, etymologically-related as they are to that other word, “voyeur”). And after 15 minutes or so I buried my head in my hands, embarrassed to hear words that were not mine to hear, to see faces feeling feelings that were not mine to see.
All in the name of reality, of course. Reality TV, we call it. And yet in every way it is not; or to put it another way, it is a million miles from reality.
What is it about us that would rather watch something that everyone knows is far from true, calling it “reality,” rather than see another episode of “Call the Midwives” or read a novel like “Anna Karenina”? There is honest romance in both of these stories—and many more others that could be named –formed as they are by visions of human life and love that are perennially real and true and right. And yet we choose cotton-candy for the heart, longing for something that is so much less than.
A long time ago, at the edge of the counter-culture as we were, Meg and I wrote our own wedding vows. Mine were about seven minutes long, and I memorized them, offering them to her with all my heart. One line had something like this: “I did not fall in love with you, and I am not going to fall out of love with you.” Probably not poetry for the ages, but I meant it.
Suspicious even then of “falling in love,” I am even more so now. I guess I have seen too much over too many years. The viewers of “The Bachelorette” would do well to spend more time with the time-worn wisdom of Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University, who once said it this way, “We do not fall in love and then get married; rather we get married and then learn what love requires.” Hearing the young woman of the show try to make sense of the deepest of human longings to know and to love, to be known and to be loved—with the whole world watching, voyeuristically as we were –was painful, even in its silliness. Episode by episode, she fell in and out of love, always able to do it one more time, for herself and for all of us.
One of my own teachers, Donald Drew, who in those years wrote the seminal “Images of Man” A Critique of the Contemporary Cinema,” persuaded me that the arts of all sorts both “reflect and promote” at the same time, by their nature both reflecting an understanding of what matters to human beings, and promoting that understanding in their artfulness, on screen or stage, on canvas or on page, offering an image of man, of who we are and who we ought to be.
Taking me with him to the movie theater, he took out his notepad and pen, saying with a smile and the greatest sincerity, “I am not going to leave my brains at the box-office.” I listened, and learned. We are more than brains, of course; most deeply we are hearts, as the Hebrew “image of man” sees us. We live and love out of our hearts– so we better care about them, choosing the reality of love, rather than Reality TV.