how I think through desensitization.

A few weeks ago, I shared some of my thoughts on consuming books and entertainment, and invited readers to join in the conversation. I’m delighted that many of you did, and I’m going to be blogging my way through several of the questions that were asked and themes that were raised. Keep the questions coming via blog post comments or on the Facebook page!

     In my first post on this topic, I gave my thesis statement on why I read and watch what I read and watch, which is: my primary reason for reading and watching television is that literature and storytelling have an unparalleled way of fostering my compassion for the brokenness of humanity and helping me gain insight into the human mind and heart. 

     I wrote about compassion and empathy, about turning from that which breeds fear and pressing into that which brings freedom. I wrote, “I read of characters turning over rock after rock, bottle after joint after bed sheet in search of hope and I realize that these are the people all around me, in my neighborhood, my community, the world. I’m challenged and compelled to love more deeply, less fearfully.”

     One of the questions that came up, which is a question that often comes up within my own heart is this:

What about desensitization?

     I’ll confess up front that I do not have a pat answer for this question, and that I am not working toward one. Rather, I’m working toward developing a robust, God-honoring, empathy-evoking framework that empowers me to make wise, open-hearted decisions about what I choose to consume (and what I don’t).

     With that foundation beneath us, here are a few points to consider as we think through the power of books and media to desensitize us.

     First, what do we mean when we say “desensitize?”

definition of desensitize     Interesting, isn’t it? The definition provides a bit of clarity, certainly, but it also opens up a pertinent question. When we say we have become desensitized, we generally tend to mean that we have become less likely to be distressed by exposure to harmful images, and we perceive this to be a problem, even sinful. I think that this definition is often the correct one to use, and I believe that it is invariably the one to use when we are discussing the harms of gratuitous violence, salacious sex, purposelessly crude comedy and more.

     But…or perhaps, and

     I wonder if we should explore the second definition a bit more. I wonder if, sometimes, when we say that we are concerned about being “desensitized” to something, what we really mean is that we are uncomfortable in the tension of watching or reading about a character who is lost in sin and living like it and finding ourselves having compassion on that character. I wonder if we liked being grossed out by a “type” of person, and suddenly we aren’t anymore, and now we wonder if that change is wrong. The cheating husband, the alcoholic mother, the mistress, the drug dealer, the liar, we engage them in books, in movies, and on television and we suddenly find ourselves compelled by their stories, heartbroken by their pain, understanding of their failures. We become, according to the second definition, “desensitized,” or perhaps more accurately, more poignantly, we find ourselves humanizing characters and, if art is doing its job and we are allowing it to, recognizing the intrinsic value of the people around us, the stories they share, the hardships they face.

     And herein lies the question I believe we must ask, the question that I must ask myself often.

     “Does this character compel me to compassion, or entice me to emulate?”

     Does the drug addict tempt me to numb my own pain, or does he stir compassion in my heart for the plight of those overwhelmed by suffering and desperate to anesthetize?

     Does the cheating mistress chip away at my defenses, tempting me toward a wandering eye or a lustful heart, or does she foster empathy for those whose search for love is deluded and unsatisfying?

     Does the violent warrior evoke aggression and lack of regard for human beings, or does he draw me to think more deeply about war, the sanctity of life, justice and peace-making?

     It is certainly possible for both to happen at the same time – a compelling toward compassion and an enticement to emulate. It is possible to watch a show one day and feel only compassion for the flawed character, while the next day we find ourselves tempted to dabble in choices similar to hers. And this is why one of my strongest beliefs about books and entertainment is this – our choices here should not exist in a vacuum. Our choices here are not exempt from the input and questioning of our community. I don’t think this means we need to text a friend every time we set the DVR or borrow a library book, but I do think it means that we keep the conversation about what we watch and read and why open with those around us. I think it means that we are called to be soft and receiving to insight, input, even disagreement. I think it means we confess to one another if we are finding ourselves tempted by the images or words we have consumed, and that we submit ourselves one to another in establishing gracious, loving boundaries. I think it means we push one another in our definitions, that we dig toward the root of desensitization, humanization, fear, freedom and compassion.

    Community is a critical component all of the Christian life, and our consumption of books and entertainment is no exception. This isn’t about legalism; it’s not about rules, nor about “accountability partners” having ultimate authority over what we consume. It’s about keeping conversations open, leaving no room for dark secrets growing within. It’s about the journey away from fear and toward freedom together. It’s about helping one another follow the Spirit toward purity and empathy intertwined, together.

What are your thoughts on books, entertainment, desensitization and community? I’d love to hear them! Comment on this post or join the conversation on the Facebook page.

     Next in this series: personality + entertainment (how our individual designs influence the way we consume and engage with entertainment). 

From Him | Through Him | To Him,

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Author: Abby Perry

Abby has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, Upwrite Magazine, and The Influence Network. She is the communications coordinator for a nonprofit organization and co-facilitates two community efforts—one promoting bridge-building racial reconciliation conversations and one supporting area foster and adoptive families. Abby graduated from Texas A&M University and currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary. She and her family live in College Station, Texas.

3 thoughts on “how I think through desensitization.”

  1. This is certainly not an original thought, but… The problem is not how we engage entertainment when we consume it, but that we don’t engage when we consume entertainment. Me included. It’s a way to turn my brain off and not have to actually think.

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