Monday, August 27, 2012

The Healing Power of Television

A few years ago, after hosting dozens of groups in Nicaragua, Kathleen decided to stop listening in on our delgations’ evening reflections.  She explained her decision to me by saying, “If I hear one more person ask, ‘If they’re so poor, why do they have a television?’ I’m afraid I may do someone bodily harm.” 

Kathleen has enough experience to know that TV is a top priority for the poor, and she understands something that never occurs to those of us who’ve always had enough: poverty is boring.  Really boring.  And if you are worried about where your next meal is coming from, or whether or not gang members will break into your house tonight, or how you will come up with bus fare to get to a medical appointment, it’s hard to stop the compulsive worry about things you can’t fix.  That’s why patients at our clinic so commonly suffer from hypertension, acid reflux, insomnia…when you’re stresses are literally matters of life and death, a little distraction goes a long way, and those that can turn to the healing power of television.

My husband and I have chosen not to have a television in the house.  Like many others of our age and middle class background, we strive to spend our family time at home reading and playing with our kids instead.  Let’s be clear though, we’re not that virtuous.  If it weren’t for the miracle of downloadable TV and movies, we’d definitely have a TV. Frankly, our access to internet and computers gives us the luxury of pretending to be holier-than-thou, when in effect we’re just getting all the good TV without the distraction of ads.  And sometimes, even a little bit of not-so-good TV is exactly what the doctor ordered.

My friend Martha is dying of cancer. It’s a hard thing to watch when it happens to anyone, but it’s especially hard because Martha is so young, because she has a beautiful and talented 10-year-old daughter, because she’s still so full of life, and because she’s suffering so much.  In the middle of a chat, Martha will frequently be taken over by a pain spell that makes giving birth look like a walk in the park, yet she refuses morphine because she says that’s for dead people. I come home after a visit with Martha and my mind is racing, worrying about things that it does absolutely no good to worry about because there’s so little to be done. I’m distracted, I’m having trouble sleeping, and my jaw feels like I spent the night gnawing on a hunk of old Hubba Bubba. If I feel this way as a friend watching from the fringes, what must Martha and her family be going through? 

I rarely find myself with time alone at home, and when I do, I am usually washing clothes or desperately trying to rescue my garden from whatever has tried to eat it since I glanced at it last week.  Yesterday I found myself with a few hours alone and I started off by trying to get lots of things done.  But I was mulling and stewing and imagining conversations with people I’d really like to give a good talking to.  It was clearly unhealthy to be left to my own devices.  So I turned on “Modern Family,” a show that my TV snob of an Irish husband claims is unbelievable melodramatic fluff about rich people.  He’s absolutely right…and it was wonderful. I watched not one episode, but many, many episodes in a row.  I thought not once about things beyond my control, but allowed myself to get caught up in the story, shake my head, laugh out loud.  I desperately needed a distraction, and the TV gave me some relief.

Martha didn’t grow up with a TV.  Her family was too poor to afford a television and she tells stories of standing outside the neighbor’s house watching their TV through the window.  She bounced from house to house during childhood and survived in situations that would have torn a weaker woman apart.  She’s worked hard to give her daughter a better life, and last week Martha bought her a television. In a household where sometimes they scramble to buy food, where I bring them gifts of q-tips and gauze to clean her kidney drain, Martha bought her daughter a television.

Looking in from the outside, we might ask the question Kathleen dreads the most: If she’s so poor, why did she buy a television?  But I have the privilege to see a little ways into Martha’s life with her daughter, and for me, the picture changes: When a 10 year old’s world is falling apart, when all of her stability has been pulled right out from under her and there’s not a damn thing she can do about it and there’s not a damn thing any one of us can do to stop it from happening, she needs a little distraction.  Maybe she needs to laugh at idiotic cartoons.  Maybe she needs to lose herself for a little while in the fantasy worlds created in that black box.  Maybe losing herself for a little while will give her the strength she needs to face what’s surely ahead of her.  If I were one to judge, I would say that Martha’s given her daughter a very valuable gift indeed.  I would say that Martha is a very good mother.  Becca