“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46: 10).
I recently downloaded Pascal’s Pensees for free. There’s a section which I found to be very helpful. We live in a culture that is addicted to distraction. Surely, we find it hard to remain still, even to pause and reflect. Most of our dulness comes about from our lack of rest in the gospel, and from losing sight of the awe and wonder of the gospel. If we were to be given a test on the gospel, most of us could put them down on paper in a few words. But are we in awe? Honestly, I have been quite distracted this past week……I confess. I need the “amazing” part back into grace. I need to be in awe of God, but I can’t when I scurry around being distracted all the time. I’ll let Pascal speak to us:
“When I have occasionally set myself to consider the different distractions of men, the pains and perils to which they expose themselves at court or in war, whence arise so many quarrels, passions, bold and often bad ventures, etc., I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. A commission in the army would not be bought so dearly, but that it is found insufferable not to budge from the town; and men only seek conversation and entering games, because they cannot remain with pleasure at home” (# 139 Pensees).
Also here’s an excerpt from “Why Truth Matters Most: An Apologetic for Truth-Seeking in Postmodern Times” in which Douglas Groothuis (Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary) derives his own thought on this subject from Pascal. I have added my own reflections in light of Psalm 37: 4 in the end.
“In the middle of the seventeenth century in France, Blaise Pascal went to great lengths to expose those diversions that kept people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate significance. His words still ring true. In his day, diversion consisted of things like hunting, games, gambling, and other amusements. The repertoire of diversion was minute compared with what is available in our fully-wired and over-stimulated postmodern world of cell phones, radios, laptops, video games, omnipresent television (in cars, restaurants, airports, etc.), extreme sports, and much else. Nevertheless, the human psychology of diversion remains unchanged. Diversion consoles us—in trivial ways—in the face of our miseries or perplexities; yet, paradoxically, it becomes the worst of our miseries because it hinders us from ruminating on and understanding our true condition. Thus, Pascal warns, it “leads us imperceptibly to destruction.” Why? If not for diversion, we would “be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death.” Through the course of protracted stupefaction, we learn to become oblivious to our eventual oblivion. In so doing, we choke off the possibility of seeking real freedom.
Diversion serves to distract humans from a plight too terrible to encounter directly—namely, our mortality, finitude, and failures. There is an ineluctable tension between our aspirations and our anticipations and the reality of our lives. As Pascal wrote,
Despite [his] afflictions man wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop thinking about it.
Pascal unmasks diversion as an attempt to escape reality, and an indication of something unstable and exceedingly out-of-kilter in the human condition. An obsession with entertainment is more than silly or frivolous. It is, for Pascal, revelatory of a moral and spiritual malaise begging for an adequate explanation. Our condition is “inconstancy, boredom, anxiety.” We humans face an incorrigible mortality that drives us to distractions designed to overcome our worries:
Man is obviously made for thinking. Therein lies all his dignity and his merit; and his whole duty is to think as he ought. Now the order of thought is to begin with ourselves, and with our author and our end. Now what does the world think about? Never about that, but about dancing, playing the lute, singing, writing verse, tilting at the ring, etc., and fighting, becoming king, without thinking what it means to be a king or to be a man.
Pascal notes that “if man were [naturally] happy, the less he were diverted the happier he would be, like the saints and God.” Diversion cannot bring sustained happiness, since it locates the source of happiness outside of us; thus, our happiness is dependent on factors often beyond our control, so that we are “liable to be disturbed by a thousand and one accidents, which inevitably cause distress.” The power may go off, the screen freeze, or the cell phone connection may break up. Worse yet, our own sensoriam may break down as sight dwindles, hearing ebbs, olfactory awareness fades, and all manner of bodily pleasures become harder to find and easier to lose. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes intones, “Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’ ” (Eccl 12:1).
Diversions would not be blameworthy if they were recognized as such: trivial or otherwise distracting activities performed in order to temporarily avoid the harsh and unhappy realities of human life. However, self-deception often comes into play. In the end “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.” According to Pascal, this condition illustrates the corruption of human nature. Humans are strangely not at home in their universe. They cannot even sit quietly in their own rooms. “If our condition were truly happy we should feel no need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.” Woody Allen highlights this in a scene from the movie “Manhattan.” A man speaks into a tape recorder about the idea for a story about “people in Manhattan who are constantly creating these real unnecessary neurotic problems for themselves because it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe.”
The compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life. We have great difficulty being quiet in our rooms, when the television or computer screen offers a riot of possible stimulation. Postmodern people are perpetually restless; they frequently seek solace in diversion instead of satisfaction in truth. As Pascal said, “Our nature consists in movement; absolute rest is death.” The postmodern condition is one of oversaturation and over-stimulation, and this caters to our propensity to divert ourselves from pursuing higher realities.”
Scripture simply commands us with a promise, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37: 4). When God becomes our delight, He will put His desires in us. When His desire become ours, that is to fellowship with him, distraction will fade away. The happier we are in God, the more rested we will be. Surely our delight in God can overcome our addiction to distraction.
What are your thoughts? Please feel free to use the comment box below.