you would have invested one hundred dollars in the stock market in
January of 2000, by December of 2009 it would be worth just ninety.
This has led some writers to describe the past ten years as the lost
decade. I disagree. Loss assumes an unconscious act of forgetfulness.
This, by contrast, was a decade of deliberate escape, an era in time
when America chose to enter an alternate reality. A ten year interval
where otherwise responsible citizens decided that the best way to deal
with their problems was to simply ignore them.
This decade saw
the advent of reality TV, launched by Fox in February, 2000 with ‘Who
Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire,’ ushering in an era where people
became so unenamored of their own reality that they chose to escape to
someone else’s. It was a time where we developed an insatiable appetite
for fame and learned to live vicariously through Hollywood glamour and
celebrity trainwrecks. It was a decade that ended with us watching an
average of 5 hours of TV per day and where Hollywood broke all previous
records as people saw ten bucks to escape problems as the ultimate
bargain. It was also a decade that saw the advent of texting, allowing
people to forego the immersion of emotion-filled conversation and
escape to dry, robotic discourse. Most of all, it was a decade where we
shopped until the economy dropped, using consumption as the ultimate
escape from unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
The tragedy of having escaped to an alternate reality this past
decade is that our problems have only gotten worse. After 9/11 we
delegated the fight against terror to a warrior class of just two
percent of the population and refused to even watch their dead bodies
come home for burial, busy as we were watching Dancing with the Stars.
We then refused to even pay for our wars and just added it on to a
national debt that at the end of the decade reached the staggering sum
of twelve trillion dollars. Having not been content to nearly destroy
our entire economy through a truly reckless government and personal
spending binge, we added one further escape in the form of internet
porn which by the end of the decade had grown, by some reports, to an
hour a day for men.
In the meantime our relationships got worse as, for the first time
in American history, singles became the majority population in the
country. Our country became more politically divided between liberal
and conservative since incessant tension and conflict create a
diversionary reality of their own.
And as we escaped and escaped, we scarcely asked ourselves what were
escaping from. What was so uninviting about our lives that we were
constantly running from them? What was inadequate about our marriages
that we spent much of the decade discussing Brad and Angelina’s
non-marriage? What was so boring about our kids that we ended up
obsessed with Madonna’s adopted kids? And what gaping hole had opened
inside us that required shoving an endless number of electronics, cars,
and jewelry just to fill that cavernous space? A year after the
collapse our bankers are just as greedy, our shopping patterns nearly
as voracious, our politician’s spending patterns even more reckless.
Some would say that 9/11 was the cause behind the decade of escape.
After an end was brought to a lengthy cold war we thought that danger
was finally behind us. So when death rained down from the heavens we
responded by checking out. I don’t buy it. Americans have always
responded to military crises by deeper engagement rather than mindless
No, the real reason for our escape was the loss of Godly meaning
from our lives. The material plenty of the eighties and the nineties
brought about a gradual spiritual corrosion. We began to lust for
objects rather than purpose. We allowed our careers to take the place
of a genuine life calling. Friends came to supplant family.
Relationships based on common interests stood in for commitments based
on common purpose.
In the process we allowed shallowness and laziness to creep into our
souls. Escaping was so much easier than engaging. Coming home from work
it was a lot easier to pop on the TV than talk to our kids. Taking our
spouses out for a weekly movie stood in for having raw and honest
conversations. And when all this emptiness depressed us and made us
feel lonely, we turned to the impulse purchase as the solution. We went
to the mall rather than to the Church, to the Cineplex rather than the
I was born in the United States and lived here for the first sixteen
years of my life before studying in Israel and Australia and then
serving as Rabbi at Oxford for what amounted, in total, to seventeen
years abroad. I returned with my family just as this decade was
beginning. I love America, but I’d have to conclude that for all the
technological advances of the past decade, we’ve stagnated socially. We
are ending the decade poorer, more ignorant, and more alone.
I am therefore not surprised that an obsession with Michael Jackson
is what closed the decade for Michael became the very symbol of
American escape. Rather than confront his mounting debt he just spent
more money to distract himself from looming financial oblivion. Rather
than seeking to build inner self-esteem, he turned to plastic surgery
to feel better about the man he saw in the mirror. And rather than
address the pain that was consuming him, he turned to prescription
drugs to medicate it away.
We would be wise to reflect on how tragically his story turned out.
Our country needs new direction and now more than ever there is hope
for optimism. We have seen how unfulfilling rampant materialism and
greed are. We have learned that mindless escapes foster even greater
problems. Let this therefore make this coming decade one of
re-engagement. Let’s fill the emptiness in our lives not with more
shopping but with more communal volunteering. Let’s watch less TV and
read more books. Let’s text a little less and open up a whole lot more.
Let this be the decade of deeper reflection and self-awareness. And
over the next ten years let’s learn to be content with our material
blessings and pursue instead the riches of the spirit – wisdom, virtue,
character, and enlightenment.
After a decade of mindless escapes its time we reached for a higher reality.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s most recent books are ‘The Michael
Jackson Tapes: A Tragic Icon Reveals His Soul in Intimate Conversation’
and ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing
Spiritual Hunger. http://www.shmuley.com.