Days of the Couch Potatoes
Posted: 26 Rajab 1425, 11 September 2004
Probably one of the most prominent, pervasive, and powerful products of this
age is the media, and especially the television. Its control over our thoughts
and actions is mind boggling. Among its corrosive effects is that on physical
health. In April 2003, for example, the Journal of the American Medical
Association reported results of a six-year Harvard study: watching four hours of
television a day increased risk of obesity by 50 percent and of diabetes by 30
percent. It referred to the couch potato syndrome, the damaging combination of
junk food diet and inactivity, which is a serious public health hazard.
But the television produces couch potatoes not just physically but also
mentally and intellectually. It entertains, it captivates, and it dictates what
we will think and talk about. And like superbly programmed robots, we act on its
cues. We worried about Somalia when the media talked about famine there,
although that was a couple of years after the famine had set in. And we forgot
it the day it was replaced by other hot news. We worried about Bosnia and Kosova
when they were in the headlines. Not a day before or after. Afghanistan
concerned us when the media producers decided it was important and to the extent
they dictated. Atrocities in Afghanistan did not provoke the same reaction as
those in Iraq; the difference was not in the seriousness of the atrocities but
in the cues issued by the media machine.
And even when we do focus on the latest hot spot, what do we
do beyond talking about it? Do we work on solutions for any of the problems
about which we are so eager to get the latest reports? If that were the case,
just one day’s news might be sufficient to keep us busy for a whole year. But
every day we are ready to receive another batch of headlines, while quietly
trashing yesterday’s reports like stale produce in a grocery store. Imagine a
company president who receives reports about problems throughout his company and
about changes in the economy that will affect him. He reads them with interest
and talks about them with passion but does nothing. Every day. Of course such a
president will not survive in a business. But are we not doing the same thing?
We seek the latest news but the question, what we will do with that news, does
not bother us. As a result of this divorcing of “information” from the
possibilities of action, our interest in it is so superficial. Fickle. Here now,
gone the next hour with the next headline. The modern media machine has turned
life into a spectator sport.
But life is not a spectator sport and it is a terrible mistake of
incalculable proportions to treat it as such. Information is valuable but only
if it is sought for action. Ultimately the value of our life is to be determined
not by the "information" we gathered but by the actions we performed. The Qur’an
says: “He has power over everything, the One Who created death and life that He
may test which of you is finest in action.” [al-Mulk, 67:1-2] This is a central
message of Islam and it changes our entire outlook on this life.
But life is not a spectator sport and it is a terrible mistake of incalculable
proportions to treat it as such.
Further, we must remember that every one of us is responsible for his or her
own actions and inactions. We will not be able to blame others for our failure
to act. Nor shall we get credit for actions in which we had no part. “That no
bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another- And that man shall have
nothing but what he strives for.” [an-Najm 53: 38-39]
The above verse also establishes a fundamental principle which dictates that
no one can be punished for the crimes of others. It has serious legal
implications. For example, the practice of capturing family members of a
criminal, let alone a suspect, remains clearly prohibited in Islamic law. The
jahilya societies of yesterday and today, on the other hand, are distinguished
by violating this essential principle of justice. However in the Hereafter no
one will be able to shift blame or steal credit. We will be facing our own
This has far reaching consequences for us here as well. The paramount
question then becomes, what are we doing to change the situation? Did we do
everything we could? Or were we too busy complaining about the darkness to light
our own little candle? For the Qur’an says: “We do not impose on any soul a duty
except to the extent of its ability.” [al-A’raf, 7:42] It also assures us that
we cannot fail when we do the right thing regardless of what everyone else is
doing. “O you who believe! take care of your souls. No one who goes astray will
harm you, provided you are guided.” [al-Maida, 5:105].
A million gripes will not remove darkness but a single candle will. Inaction
breeds frustration and despair. Initiative, personal responsibility, and action,
on the other hand, can dramatically change our condition. Consider the issue of
education in the Muslim world. There is concerted effort to remove any traces of
an Islamic identity and replace it with secular and anti-Islamic messages. The
response, though, has been of feeble protests. Yet so much could be done. In the
USA, for example, when some parents felt a similar problem, they started
home-schooling. Private schools were established and textbook publishers
produced books that reflected their values.
All this and more could be done in Pakistan, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia. Parents
groups could organize to meet with book publishers and school officials asking
them not to publish, sell, or use the recently introduced poisoned books.
Alternate textbooks could be published privately and private schools
established. In fact the Muslim tradition is a bright one. Ibn Sirin said: “This
knowledge constitutes your religion so be careful whom you take your religion
from.” How can those guided by this face the corruption of their education
system with resignation?
Imam Hasan Basri, Rahimahullah, said: “O son of Adam. You are a collection of
days. When a day passes, a part of you passes away with it.” None of us knows
how many days are left in us. Can we afford to live another of those days living
the miserable life of a couch potato?