“I have often said that all human unhappiness comes from one thing alone, the inability to remain quietly in a room.” That quotation, or some form of it, is among the most quoted by seventeenth-century French polymath Blaise Pascal from his Pensées, or “Thoughts,” a collection of fragmentary writings now in a new, impressive translation edited by Pierre Zoberman. It’s also quite germane to the quality of our Lenten and Christmas experiences.
Reading Pensées afresh in this latest edition, I was amazed how truly insightful Pascal can be regarding the human condition, and prescient regarding the problems we moderns face centuries removed from his comparatively more pastoral, and less frantic French life. What Pascal realized was that as much as we humans talk a good game about yearning for rest, imagining that distant retirement as the object of our deepest desires – we are addicted to agitation. Why is that?
Pascal believes we are afraid of what we might find if we actually had to quietly contemplate ourselves, the world, and reality in all its complexity and mystery:
We seek neither that easy, peaceful existence that might make us think of our unhappy condition nor the dangers of war nor the toil of office, but rather the agitation that stops us from thinking about it and divert us. – That is why we prefer the hunt to the catch. That is why men so love hustle and bustle. . . .That is why finding pleasure in solitude is so incomprehensible.
In quiet solitude, we might be forced to come to terms with who we truly are: not what we try to persuade others to think of us, nor what we tell ourselves through our work or busy leisure. Alone, we might realize how shallow are our desires, how multitudinous are our sins, and how vain our attempts at crafting a legacy that outlives us. We are but a breath, our lives a flash in the pan.
Most of us don’t even really want rest, at least not the kind of rest Pascal has in mind. We want to be entertained, excited – to possess that feeling that something important is about to happen.
Even when people talk about needing rest, they don’t typically mean a retreat of prayer and meditation. They mean leisure activities, often involving new thrills. Instead of reading emails, skiing. Instead of paying the bills, scuba diving. Instead of yard work, a cruise on the Danube.
Pascal observes that this is true even of those in the highest positions of power and wealth, who have the most freedom to actually engage in rest because they are not as beholden to the demands and responsibilities of daily life. Pascal, a bit cynically, writes even of royalty: “The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and prevent him from thinking about himself; for, king though he be, he is unhappy if ever he thinks about himself.”
It’s not hard to imagine royalty acting thus – we need only look at our own American “royalty,” the celebrities. Though the rich and famous possess every comfort imaginable and millions of adoring fans, we know most evince a deep dissatisfaction. Tom Brady’s refusal to retire, Kim Kardashian’s revolving door of exes, Demi Lovato’s pronoun games – all in various ways serve as a valuable catechesis of the fact that money and notoriety do not secure human happiness.
“Let us leave a king completely alone, without anything to satisfy his senses, without any care to occupy his mind, and without company, to think about himself totally at leisure,” says Pascal, “and we shall see that a king without diversion is a man full of miseries.”
And, of course, if those with the most material prosperity suffer such problems, surely, we know it can be true of us. Pascal avers: “Our whole life flows by like this: we seek rest by fighting against a few obstacles, and yet if they are overcome, rest becomes intolerable through the ennui that it generates. We have to go out in urgent search of agitation.” I’ve known people who spent thirty years in a fast-paced, lucrative career, yearning for that beach house with all its creature comforts, only to find it lonely, boring, even soulless in predictable repetitiveness.
The holidays often serve as a microcosm of that discomforting reality. We labor all year and look forward to a week or two off at the end of the year, filled with leisure and amusements. Yet often it disappoints: the extended family frustrates; we overindulge in food and drink; we become listless watching yet another college football game.
What are we to do? “If man, however filled with sadness he may be, can be prevailed upon to indulge in some diversion, he will be happy for the time that the diversion lasts,” warns Pascal. Is that the best we can hope for? Stay on the treadmill, ever on the prowl for new entertainment? Constrain our desires a bit so we evade boredom? Surely there must be something better for man. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity,” writes Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
After Pascal died, a note was found sewn on the inside of his coat, a record of an experience he had one evening. It read, in part:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants.
Certitude, certitude; feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. Deum meum et Deum vestrum.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
Forgetting the world and everything, except God.
We do need to be diverted, but not to the ephemeral pleasures of this world: food, drink, sex, applause. We require a diversion that is transcendent, eternal, that can satisfy our souls’ seemingly unquenchable yearnings. Because our soul is immaterial, it requires an immaterial object to fulfill us. We need, in a word, Immanuel, God with us. We need Pascal’s version of diversion.
*Image: Blaise Pascal by Augustin Pajou, 1785 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Pascal’s Fire
Brad Miner’s To Live Is to Choose