I boozed some in my 20s, smoked a few joints in my 30s, and daydream to this day. But my drug of choice, the one I have never quit, the one that distracts me from life the best, is TV.
At first it was movies. When I was a kid with divorced parents and four places to live (the other two were Gramma Lou's house, and Aunt Rose and Uncle Charlie's), I found solace at the Music Box theater or the Belmont, Century, Uptown, Vic and North Center. A black Schwinn with a chain lock you wrap around a lamppost is a wonderful thing.
I'd buy a bag of popcorn with real butter and a Coke with lots of ice and sit way on the side where nobody would sit next to me and I'd laugh at Abbot and Costello, sword-fight alongside Zorro and have my heart carried away by movies like "Gunga Din," "Lost Horizons," and "Great Expectations."
My favorites were the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weissmuller. I'd pretend that I was Boy and that I lived with Tarzan and Jane in a tree high above the troubles of the world; and when trouble did come, I'd be safe because Tarzan would protect me and Jane loved me and I would learn to swim faster than an alligator, run quicker than a lion, eat bananas and berries from trees and soon take care of myself and others just like Tarzan and Jane took care of me.
My definition of drug, you see, is anything that lifts you out of this lousy world, at least for a little while, and gives you the illusion of being somewhere else.
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TV does that for me now, as it did when I was a boy and sat in front of our round screen Zenith and watched "The Lone Ranger" who rescued good people from bad people, and Gene Autry who sang too much but had a good heart, and Uncle Miltie who did silly things on Tuesday nights to make a little boy laugh.
I got older and my imagination expanded with Sid Caesar's "Show of Shows" and its amazing sketches (once Sid, emotionally wounded by Imogene Coca, stared into the camera and blinked for five minutes until tears came streaming down his face), and Jackie Gleason's heartbreaking characters like the Poor Soul who made me cry without having to blink, and Mary Martin soaring and crowing and conquering Captain Hook in "Peter Pan."
If it were not for those TV shows I would not have directed a production of "Peter Pan" at Angel Guardian Orphanage with all the kids who wanted to be in it, and later "Oliver!" and "West Side Story" with the children of Maryville, two homes for kids like me who needed a stable environment as well as plenty of applause. That was 50 years ago, and I have never done anything more creative.
Now I'm in my 70s along with my sweetheart, Vickie, who can't walk or talk or do much of anything without my help and we sit in front of the big- screen Sony, warmed by a low fire in the fireplace, and watch miniseries where my imagination is often brought to its knees and bows to my soul's compassion for characters like Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos" who is a good guy who does bad things because he is caught in a lousy job he thinks is important, or Walter White in "Breaking Bad" whose lust for danger turns his love for his family inside out and destroys him like a gust of meth, or the new one that few people know, "Good Behavior" with Michelle Dockery as a thief who falls in love with an assassin and tries to get custody of her child and redemption in one hair-raising adventure after another.
These kinds of shows entertain me (the word entertain originally meant to "travel behind the mirror"), and make me forget the lonesomeness that accompanies much of my life. I live in a radius of 2 square miles seven days a week. TV is my escape.
TV, like any drug, can also be dangerous. I know people who have overdosed on fear and anger by watching too many news-shout shows. Those shows agitate me, too, but I tempt myself with them because they arouse my negative emotions and give me the feeling that I am really alive. The age of Trump TV threatens to be an epidemic of anxiety and rage and I know I have to watch out, big time.
Good TV doesn't soil my consciousness but bathes my spirit with something beautiful. It gives me compassion for people that don't exist but seem to, and heck, sometimes I wonder if I exist as the person I seem to be either. To travel behind the mirror is to dwell in the mystery of existence, to ponder "all the sweetness in the sad, the sadness in the sweet," as Francis Thomson said.
TV validates my experience that good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. As Paul put it, "I don't do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don't want to do" (Romans 7:19). And within this duality Jesus whispers, "One day you will remember … I am in you, and you are in me" (John 14:20). At any given moment TV lulls the imagination and provides space to meditate on who I really am and who my neighbor is, not unlike those moments a spiritual book falls from my hands when a passage calls me home. In these "holy instants" (A Course in Miracles) my spirit may "dwell in the secret place of the Most High" (Psalm 91:1).
I bring to TV the values I value most, and what I watch — whether a series like "Parenthood" or "Better Call Saul" about people I recognize and care about, or a news story that invites prayer for Syrian families fleeing all they know with nothing on their backs but their babies, or my Cubbies with their astonishing joy in game seven of the World Series as they made buoyant leaps into each other's arms — reinforces my soul's understanding that love and mercy and joy and gratitude are really what life is about.
Yes, TV is my favorite drug. It is also my empathy whisperer.
So, I turn it off at 10 p.m. and lift Vickie off her chair to take her upstairs to bed and say, "You know, sweetheart, we have a good life." I no longer sit on the side of the Music Box away from everybody else. I sit at the side of someone I know is me.
[Michael Leach, who won a lifetime achievement award from the Catholic Book Publishers Association in 2007, shepherds Soul Seeing for NCR. The column has won two first-place awards for best regular spirituality column from the Catholic Press Association. All Soul Seeing columns are available online at NCRonline.org/blogs/soul-seeing.]