Days of the Couch Potatoes

By Khalid Baig
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 actions.

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?