By Dane Neufeld
Few writers have managed to say so much with so little as Blaise Pascal in his Pensées. His thoughts on diversion and prayer seem especially apt in our present circumstance. Pascal famously argued that we need diversions to avoid staring into our own wretchedness, as he calls it, our emptiness. Through constant activity we try to avoid becoming miserable, but in the process, we avoid the one thing that could save us from our misery, which is prayer.
Most distractions are not proportionate to the misery we are seeking to escape, and Pascal points out that we lose ourselves in activities, the goal of which we would not seek in any other circumstances. This would suggest it is not the outcome but the diversion that holds value. Most famously he writes of restless people:
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. (Fragment, 139)
Now surely people were not created to sit quietly in rooms, though I have known people recovering from concussions who had to do just this for hours a day. While those of us with young children may dream of sitting quietly for hours, in reality our spare moments are often consumed quickly by idle forms of diversion such as swiping our phones or watching Netflix. Pascal is not entirely against trivial diversions, for he knows that we cannot live without them. But we should also not confuse them for something more, because for many people “their error does not lie in seeking excitement, if they seek it only as a diversion; the evil is that they seek it as if the possession of the objects of their quest would make them really happy” (Fragment, 139).
He is primarily concerned with the more momentous forms of diversion which distract us from ourselves while promising the very form of rest we are constantly trying to evade. Consider his comments on career aspiration: “They imagine that, if they obtained such a post, they would then rest with pleasure and are insensible of the insatiable nature of the desire” (Fragment, 139). This paradox is rooted deep within our nature and forms an internal tension that is seldom recognized:
They have a secret instinct which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness. They have another secret instinct, a remnant of the greatness of our original nature, which teaches them that happiness in reality consists only in rest and not in stir. And of these two contrary instincts they form within themselves a confused idea, which hides itself from their view in the depths of their soul, inciting them to aim at rest through excitement, and always to fancy that the satisfaction which they have not will come to them, if, by surmounting whatever difficulties confront them, they can thereby open the door to rest. (Fragment, 139)
The place of rest that lies beyond our desired attainment recedes as quickly as it does from the present moment we are often desperate to escape.
Being able to sit quietly in a room and being able to resist, to some degree, the more trivial diversions provides a form of defense against those diversions that are more likely to cause harm. Pascal was a skeptic of a kind who saw in the grand plans and ambitions of human beings a sort of vanity most of us cannot live without. The fragility of nurturing a reputation, he suggested, was the greatest form of diversion which can occupy us until the day we die, and it allows us to avoid the exceedingly more important reality of our inevitable death (Fragment, 82).
There is an odd sort of resonance in Pascal’s wisdom for today. The pandemic has simultaneously thrust us into many menial forms of digital diversion, while it has taken from us the larger forms of diversion we often relied on. With fewer occasions to impress, without much of the social drama that energizes so much of our lives and the stage upon which to build or refine our reputation, we find ourselves often lacking in purpose. Of course, not all our activities are of this kind, but perhaps there are more than we would like to think.
I don’t believe Pascal intended to say that we should always be retreating within ourselves and meditating upon our own wretchedness. But without the ability to recognize the frequency and desperation of our diversions, we end up avoiding the forms of self-escape that we were intended to pursue. Pascal might have referred to our inability to sit in a quiet room and pray as the source of our unhappiness. Our instinct to flee from prayer is related to this inability to dwell with our inner emptiness and confusion. The poverty of our words, our disordered and chaotic thoughts, the weakness of our internal intentions, can be unsettling and even terrifying to contend with.
For Pascal, prayer is the remedy for human lust, boredom, and restlessness though at the same time “prayer is not in our power” if it is not the prayer of Jesus Christ (Fragment, 668). The prayers of Scripture and the Church are “contrary words” that work against our nature and “produce their fruit in time” (Fragment, 579). What arises within us needs to be sifted and formed by something external to ourselves. Paradoxically, endless diversions return us to the closed cycles of the self, while in prayer, by God’s grace, we “proceed with the Spirit of God” beyond ourselves, the desire of all diversions (Fragment, 504).
Prayer should be the one place in our lives that is beyond or beneath mutual deception and “disguise” that characterize so many societal relationships. Self-love, for Pascal, is the great enemy of truth and for this reason, even in prayer “we must kneel, pray with our lips, etc., in order that the proud man, who would not submit himself to God, may be now subject to the creature” (Fragment, 250).
The restlessness that comes with pandemic restrictions often deepens our desire for diversion. Though we are tired of our chambers, there is a call to prayer that issues from this present moment we are so eager to evade. For those of us who struggle to pray, reading Pascal is a fine way to begin centering our attention on Jesus Christ, in whose power we pray.