I’ve always had a TV problem, but it’s gotten steadily worse since graduation. If I was too lazy to finish the laundry, I’d open Netflix. Time to start a new book? I’d rather watch Netflix. Feeling overwhelmed with the job search? Netflix, Netflix, Netflix.
I have a healthy sense of self-awareness. I know when something is bad for me and what I should do to fix it. If it looks like I’m not addressing a problem, I’m not unaware; I’m just aggressively ignoring it. But when things like this happen — when I develop an addiction to Netflix and I know I need to stop but am too worried / tired / scared — I turn to outside incentive.
I’m not Catholic. I’m not Episcopalian, either, or Lutheran, or any of the denominations that observe the liturgical year. I was raised Church of Christ, a tradition that prides itself on its no-nonsense approach to worship. There are no bands or instruments, no candles or vestments, no clergy or laypeople or liturgy or “rituals” like those found in the high church. There is only the Bible, God’s Holy Word.
Despite my no-frills upbringing, there’s something about the high church that calls to me. I love having a reason for our actions, a reason that extends beyond mere reaction. In the Church of Christ, so many of our traditions are negative: we don’t use instruments, we don’t have a creed, we don’t let women teach or preach or lead — the list goes on. While I’ve studied church history enough to understand where this reasoning comes from and even — to an extent — appreciate its intention, too often, I’ve seen it reduced to the mindset that “our way is the only way and everyone else is going to hell.”
My senior year of college, I stopped going to church. That same semester, my best friend studied abroad in London. While I missed her physical presence, we kept in touch, and every once in a while, between the texts and emails, I would open my mailbox to find a postcard, wrinkled and worn from its travels. Without fail, each one mentioned a cathedral, a candle, and a prayer.
Even in the midst of my semester of doubt, I was deeply comforted by the thought of my best friend touring England, praying for me in churches where we once thought no trace of God existed. As the months progressed, I began to rely on her descriptions of Evensong and Anglican ritual, cherishing the snippets she sent me from the Book of Common Prayer while imagining a day when I, too, would love going to church again.
In the years since, my interest in the Episcopal faith has grown. Authors like Rachel Held Evans and Madeleine L’Engle have encouraged my curiosity while gently loosening my grip on the assumption that liturgy is lazy and ritual the same as “going through the motions.” Far from trapping me in a web of empty prayers, the Episcopal faith has drawn me closer to God.
In the past, I’ve used Lent as a sledgehammer for bad habits. Not all my endeavors proved successful, but no matter how long or short my attempts at self-denial, the discipline always felt worthwhile. This year, though, I knew Lent would be much harder: I was going to give up Netflix.
The first day was awful. I had no idea what to do. I tried reading, writing, and cleaning my room, but nothing lasted longer than five minutes. My attention span was shot. Finally, I took a nap. In fact, I took two naps, then rounded the bases with a third because I had nothing better to do.
Quitting cold turkey was a mistake (I realized that after my second day of napping), so I set up a schedule to detox gently: fasting on Monday through Thursday, cheat days on weekends, and, if I was really desperate, half an episode of West Wing to lull me to sleep at night. I chose West Wing because I knew I wouldn’t be tempted to overwatch; thanks to the effort it took to keep up with the political jargon, I was ready to quit after twenty minutes. (I guess my laziness was good for something.) Even with this modified schedule, though, my days stretched interminably.
The problem with watching Netflix for eight hours every day is that you forget how to be a person. You’re too busy living other people’s lives to pay attention to your own, and, since all the decisions in a TV show are made for you, all you have to do is watch.
Last summer, this mindlessness washed over me in sweet relief. Rather than stressing about jobs or health insurance, I could laugh at Leslie’s antics on Parks & Recreation or bemoan Liz Lemon’s horrible choices in 30 Rock while completely ignoring my own. The fact that I tore through series at an alarming rate (7 seasons in less than 4 weeks) concerned me, but not enough to make me stop.
Then I watched American Horror Story.
It started on a whim, a kind of self-dare: could I, Shelby, a horror movie virgin, make it through an episode of such a dark and wicked show? “An episode” quickly turned into “a season,” and suddenly it was 3am and I was starting my seventh episode because I was too scared to sleep.
There’s nothing wrong with a good thrill — just ask a roller coaster junkie — but the difference between AHS and other thrillers like, say, Bates Motel or The X-Files, is that AHS is twisted. Sick. Indecent. It looks into the face of human depravity and welcomes it with open arms. The subtle undertones of incest and debauchery that underpin Bates Motel (and thus make it so compelling) are on full display in American Horror Story. There’s no room for questions or queasiness, no build to the slow reveal; you’re thrown to the wolves immediately. And repeatedly.
People get raped and mutilated in AHS, tortured and burned and killed. At one point, there’s a killer clown that makes Stephen King’s look like your kooky next-door neighbor, and he’s the least of that season’s nightmares. AHS is not a show I would recommend to anyone, and yet I found myself watching entire seasons in a single day.
Bingeing American Horror Story made me realize my life wasn’t right. If I would rather watch a literal bloodbath than deal with my internal conflict, something was seriously wrong.
Julian of Norwich has this wonderful theme throughout her revelation that talks about the two parts of the soul: the sensuality and the substance. The sensuality is our human side, the part that walks this earth and, despite our best efforts, continually falls into sin. The substance is the part of our soul that is “oned with God,” and indeed is of God. Both the sensuality and the substance are knitted together, which means that no matter how badly we mess up, we are still with God; God is still in us. And, since part of us — part of our very nature — is oned with God, whenever we seek God, we become the truest versions of ourselves.
But the really beautiful part is that the river flows both ways. Whenever we seek ourselves, earnestly and with the best of intentions, we will also find God, because God abides in our truest self. Julian puts it best when she writes, “whether we are stirred to know God or our own soul, both promptings are good and true.”
The trick, of course, is sitting still long enough to know you’re stirred.
My Lenten fast wasn’t typical. I didn’t pray or read scripture or think about God more than I usually do.
Instead, I read and slept and went to work, then came home and slept some more. I cleaned my room and took a dog for a walk, drove to Arkansas and visited friends. I called another friend for life advice, wrote a book proposal, applied for jobs. I lifted weights and took long walks, planted tomatoes, peppers, and rows of marigolds. I even touched a worm and watched a spider spin its web.
In short, I learned how to be myself again.
And I kind of really like it.
So maybe I spent Lent more absorbed with myself than I did absorbed with God. But that’s okay, because somewhere deep inside me, God is waiting to be found.