Of Pokémon, Hashtags and the Lost Art of Self-Abnegation – Noel Bava, SJ

Matthew 16:24-26, Eighteenth Week in Ordinary Time

The launch of the highly anticipated augmented reality game Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. Since its release in July, it has been downloaded 100 M times and surpassed Twitter and Snapchat with its 21 M active daily users in the US alone. Gamers have been reported to spend more time immersed in it than they do Facebook. So immensely popular is this game that it has overtaken Angry Birds and Monument Valley as the most played mobile games in Android and iOS devices. And ever since its controlled release per country, the market value of its developer, Nintendo has jumped 400% with net worth of a staggering $36.9 B. And the numbers keep on climbing.

What’s behind the roaring and rampaging success of Pokémon Go? Why are individuals, most of whom are gainfully-employed adults, willing to shell out hard-earned cash to go out and chase virtual monsters in some of the most unlikely places in the world? One guy reportedly spent an entire month’s salary so he could catch the likes of Bulbasaur, Pidgeotto, Charmander, Alakazar and of course the cutest of all, Pikachu. What’s fueling this rage? What drives men and women of this generation to even put their lives in danger (some had met accidents and uncovered crimes) so they could collect these pocket monsters?

It’s a trend, experts say. And like all fads, it will plateau and eventually people will get bored and move on with the next attraction. Some say, it’s the adrenaline rush of going out in the real world and the actual hunting for the elusive monsters and keeping them as virtual pets. Others advance the idea that, it’s the community of gamers sharing a common passion, fueled by sense of solidarity and egged on by competition that makes this game popular. Others maintain, nostalgia and the ability to act out a childhood fantasy that define the obsession with Pokémon Go.

Whatever may be the reason/s behind this craze, Pokémon Go pretty much sums this generation’s obsession with it and all things virtual, “Gotta Catch ‘em All!” That’s also the slogan of the 90’s cartoon that spawned this rage. And this resonates with netizens with a shattering impact. It is expected to hit the country with the magnitude similar to a killer tsunami.

Pokémon Go is premised on the principle of reward and instant gratification. It reinforces the idea that if you truly want something bad, you got to work for it. You have to go out of your way to fight it out with others of similar interest and inclination. You have to be there first. And you have to make sure that you brag about what you currently have and what you intend to have. And always, always, be on the lookout for what your friends and peers have that you do not have. You don’t want to be left behind, do you?

This attitude of wanting to have it all, is also reflected in the way we use Social Media to announce our selves to the world. Consider these hashtags that always trend on Facebook and Twitter. #ATM or at the moment is a personal ad stating where and what you are currently doing. Be it a vacation in Boracay or Ibiza, or malling and watching the current episode of Game of Thrones or simply cooking an egg, #ATM asks your friends and so-called friends to admire what you are doing.

#OOTD (Outfit of the Day) is a signal to the world that you have recently acquired an attire that could not wait to be shown to others. #YOLO is a statement that you are a cut above the rest, you are not afraid to try things that are new and even dangerous because You Only Live Once. And when you see something currently vogue such as iPhone 7 or Galaxy S7 Edge you instantly post a picture of it with the hashtag #IWant. When you want to communicate your nonchalance or walang paki-alam attitude to something that, well, you don’t care about, you strike a pose add some witty lines and say #LetMeTakeASelfie. For the more vocal and opinionated among us, when we express our judgment on things that irritate, anger, disgust us but do not want to be censured or cyber-bullied, we add the hashtag #JustSaying. And for the truly adamant and rebellious, when we insist that we are right and the others are wrong, we end our post with #SorryNotSorry.

These are our ultimate statements, a personal creed we live by and die for, our middle finger to a generally hostile and uncaring world. But they are also the virtual placards pinned on our virtual chests announcing the inner turmoil, the silent struggles and the unnamable fears we harbor deep in our hearts. With all our posturing and swagger, we also reveal to the world how insecure, weak and tiny and fragile and vulnerable we are. Our shout outs are really whispers of desperation, of seeking affirmation, asking the world to pay a little attention to us. I am sad, please like my post. I am devastated by my parents’ break up, send me emojis with hugs and kisses. I feel so alone, distract me by tagging me in a really funny video clip. I am afraid, write Amen or share my post about a dying kid somewhere in Afghanistan.

In our Gospel today, Christ cautions his disciples that the only way to follow Him is to “deny himself and take up his cross.” For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake, will find it. Sadly, this message is losing its trend in the world gone mad with doing the actual opposite. Instead of denying oneself, this world teaches us to affirm ourselves. Instead of going out of our way to help others in need, we go out and chase virtual monsters that give us delight during the day but come to haunt us in our sleep. Instead of self-abnegation, this world trumpets self-gratification and self-promotion. Me Before You. Me before others. Me above everyone else. And when it could not be me, I rant and rave.

Instead of carrying our cross, we cast it away as if it’s an unnecessary burden that impinge on our desire to seek happiness and pleasure. The cross for many has become a symbol of oppression, an ultimate downer or kill joy. With the cross my happiness is limited and stunted. But without it, I could experience happiness whenever I feel lonely.
Christ, however warns us, what profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life, and with it, his very soul? While the world teaches us to accumulate things, grab the latest gadgets, stock up on reward points to be exchanged with higher prizes later on, Christ teaches us to shun the world and its glittering and alluring attractions. The world tells us that we would be more popular, more cool, more important when we dine at this restaurant, spend a holiday at this resort, or own something nobody from among our peers own. Christ tells us that we would constantly hunger and thirst for the Bread of Life and Wine of Salvation.

There is so much pain and suffering in the world, much of it self-inflicted but a great deal is foisted on others. It is as if the mantra of the day, I’m unhappy so why should you be happy? I’m messed up inside and why should you look unshakeable and tidy? If I am miserable, so should you be.

What is Christ’s advice to the pocket monster-chasing, hashtag-wielding denizens of the world to combat this disillusion and disaster? Deny yourself. Pay attention to the suffering of others. Live simply that others may simply live. Carry your cross, help carry the burden of others too. Feed the hungry, not your virtual pets. Counsel, do not cyber-bully the ignorant. Praise and uplift the equally lost and not slut-shame them. Continue to promote life in a culture lusting after the blood of their fellowmen.

You will be hated, scorned, judged harshly and wrongfully accused, but that is the way of all disciples and friends of Jesus. You will lose your dignity and even your life, but you will find genuine happiness and peace and your reward will not be monsters or dragons but lasting friendship with the Lord who does not unfriend and will never block you from His life. Your inheritance will not be castles that ogres and giants can destroy but an impregnable fortress of love and acceptance no matter what you have done and no matter who you are. By focusing our utmost attention to Jesus, we learn who and who’s we are.
Because, “He is the unique image of the unseen God, capable of revealing himself everywhere; and in a tantalizing culture of images, he is the single image that unites us. We know who we are by looking at him.” – GC 35

Go in the world and catch, Jesus!

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