The Myth of Living Vicariously

The Myth of Living Vicariously

It’s 9:00pm and we’re looking forward to some ‘me’ time after a rough day. We’re not in the mood for much social interaction since we probably feel all-talked-out at this point in the evening. Instead, we’d rather slip into a comfortable zone of ‘mindlessness’ for a few hours before we head to bed. To meet this understandable need, many of us regularly turn on our TVs, laptops, or smart phones for entertainment– and tune into our favorite Reality Television series. Our obsession with reality TV isn’t anything new. Broadcast networks have populated their primetime programming calendars with them for decades now. Their popularity continues to grow, and similar shows are added each new season. Different reality plots abound: a race, an obstacle course, an island, a budding romance, a talent contest, a dance-off, a battle for the best singing voice, or a hunt for an affordable home to buy or rehab. Whatever the theme, we’re fascinated by the superficially real and spontaneous (but truly staged and controlled) dramas that unfold before us on the screen each week. In many ways, we vicariously ‘live’ with our chosen heroes or villains on the shows.

What is it about these reality shows that create such immense popularity and widespread viewership? For many of us, it’s no more than a temporary and innocent escape from the rigors, routines, and periodic boredom of life. It represents an exercise of simply ‘winding down’. For others, though, these shows facilitate our desire to observe, from afar, the lives of others—sometimes in quite intimate detail and scope. The strengths and vulnerabilities of the TV characters and their associated dramas excite our sensibilities, particularly in riskier situations… while we, in turn, watch from the distant safety of our homes. We might vicariously enjoy the successes of the shows’ winners (without investing anything of our own selves), while simultaneously judging the failures of those who didn’t make it to the finals. For others of us, these shows may meet our needs for belonging to a ‘family’, group, or team in situations where we don’t feel a part of these things in reality. Or, conversely, the shows may appeal to our ‘less human’ side, allowing us to secretly hope for conflict, a break-up, a disaster, or someone’s demise.

Watching reality TV amounts to harmless fun for the vast majority of the shows’ viewing audiences. But it raises important questions for each of us to consider. What does our attraction to these shows say about the things we value most? And how do our viewing habits reflect a more generalized approach to living our own lives each day? How much do our actual lives closely mirror the act of watching someone else’s reality unfold on a large flat screen before our eyes? If our relationships, our careers, our family situations, and our ongoing personal and professional development activities closely mirror our reality show viewing habits, there may be deeper issues that warrant more honest, introspective reflection. For we may be living on ‘empty calories’ in our daily ‘diet’. Worse yet, our lives may be slowly, but surely, regressing into a form of distance living—a voyeurism of sorts as we try to vicariously live through people, things, and experiences external to us.

Many factors contribute to our standing back from the ‘participation sport’ of life while we watch from the bleachers. Fear may be the most important of these factors. To be sure, human fear is hard-wired into our DNA. And fear can be a quite useful and life-saving phenomena, instinctively protecting us from real and imminent environmental harms. It can guide us in staying out of harm’s way in the first place or in proactively retreating from it when dangers begin to arise around us. However, the problem with fear for most of us isn’t that we don’t use it enough. Instead, it’s that we live our lives with an unhealthy, high dose of diffused, generalized, and often unwarranted and overactive ‘alarm bells’ in our heads. When this is the case, fear begins to control our lives in harmful, self-defeating ways that cause us to hold back, to restrict our effort and investment, and to watch life happen from a distance. In some cases, a past threat or failure can become an ever-present replay in the ‘here and now’ without any sound basis… because the specter of fear is actually an illusion. Yet it feels quite real to us. Now to be clear, I’m not talking here about human reactions to past, life-changing violence, trauma, serious illness, or complicated grief situations. Rather, I’m addressing the more generalized, irrational fear that keeps many of us needlessly sidelined from life to one degree or another.

Twentieth Century US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) said it well in 1933 as part of his first inaugural address to a nation collectively frightened by the onset of the Great Depression:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

 FDR understood the serious nature and magnitude of the challenges before the US at the time. He also knew that the answers to our problems were to be found in the people, themselves. To be found in the many, not the few elites. Roosevelt issued a ‘call to arms and legs’, not our denial, escape, or observation. He challenged the nation and the world to its greatest potential, guided by focused, sustained, and committed purpose-driven engagement. FDR was beckoning his listeners to get up and move through their many fears with the resilient energy of Real Purpose to collectively bring about an economic recovery via their vision, involvement, action, and shared sacrifice. They would risk and fail along the way, as did Roosevelt on occasion. But FDR inspired a nation to repeatedly get back up over and over again.

Roosevelt’s famous inaugural address and his many subsequent ‘fireside chats’ over the radio were emblematic of an important truth around human purpose as an antidote for fear. We often think that we seek out, find, and test our purpose in life. And, to some extent, we do have a part in finding ourselves through our own individual efforts– based on our likes, desires, interests, preferences, and personal passions. But, for the most part, real and sustained purpose calls us—not the other way around. Our foundational purpose is most often grounded in unmet (or under-met) needs all around us. Or is found in other causes or needs areas that we may be uniquely qualified to engage in. Or in things that call on our respective sacred and most deeply lived values. Or lastly, in things held firmly by our belief that we can make a positive and lasting difference for the better: the power of one. In truth, these ‘drivers’ of purpose find us instead of our finding them. They find us because we stand ready to jump in, not to observe from afar. We stand ready to contribute, not simply to spectate. We stand ready to commit, not to sit. Purpose calls us. But we have to listen for and answer this call. It’s that simple. Human purpose can inspire us and help us battle our fears. But, by definition, we cannot overcome those fears and achieve that purpose vicariously. We have to actually engage.

It seems obvious why this is so. Because nothing happens when nothing happens. Purpose cries out for concrete, sustained action. By its very nature, purpose desires fulfilment and requires human movement. But ironically enough, this necessary movement is often most aided by saying ‘no’. Not ‘no’ to everything, of course. Not ‘no’ in the service of living live vicariously. But rather, ‘no’ to the many things that clutter up our lives. ‘No’ to the often seemingly urgent, but actually less important things that we tend to focus on. When we say ‘no’ or ‘later’ to these secondary activities, we can say ‘yes’ to the far more important, purposeful things along the way. Without a doubt, saying ‘no’ involves a choice on our parts. It requires that we consciously unlearn some of the things that we erroneously thought were critical in our lives. Finally, saying ‘no’ more often requires some sacrifice on our part. But actively fulfilling our purpose demands that we give something up in order to achieve something else. We cannot do everything. And trying to do too means that we achieve next to nothing in the end. In the arena of purpose, less is oftentimes much, much more.

The much, much ‘more’ of authentic, real living is the actually living with purpose. More specifically, an authentically lived life is a clear-eyed endeavor, not the blurring of real and unreal. It’s an act of substantive engagement, not an escape from our felt, but often false, limitations. It’s being true to the reasons we exist, not an abdication of our authentic internal integrity. It’s connecting with our vital being-energy, not sitting back and watching. It’s constructively responding to the questions that life asks of us, not simply asking why life has asked them. And it’s getting out there every day, not hiding in plain sight. Admittedly, living with purpose can be risky and scary. And success is never guaranteed. But the world needs participants, not spectators. Needs actors, not watchers. Needs energy in, not consumption out.

Most importantly, fully engaging with our human purpose is the one thing that defines us as actually living in this world. Because, in truth, ‘living vicariously’ isn’t really living at all in any meaningful sense. The two words (living and vicariously), when articulated together, are oxymorons–incongruent and contradictory in nature. Worse yet, the two-word phrase is nothing more than a harmful, self-defeating myth. Little more than an un-reality show of merely existing, watched from afar. This is not why we’re here on this earth. We’re all meant to do much, much more than simply existing during our lives. So, in that very spirit, what if we turned off the ‘show’ and showed up in life on ‘purpose’ more often?

“It does not really matter what we expect from life, but rather what life expects from us. We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. These tasks form the destiny of each of us, respectively.”

 Viktor E. Frankl— (quote paraphrased)

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