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Divertissement and Distraction

January 21, AD 2012 4 Comments

Weariness.--Nothing is so insufferable to man as to be completely at rest, without passions, without business, without diversion, without study. He then feels his nothingness, his forlornness, his insufficiency, his dependence, his weakness, his emptiness. There will immediately arise from the depth of his heart weariness, gloom, sadness, fretfulness, vexation, despair.


Diversion.--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.

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and Catholic apologist

These piercing words of Pascal, perhaps the first modern Catholic apologist writing to an emerging modern world, have grown sharper as the world has grown more modern.  I mean this in that peculiar sense, distinct from chronology, in which we can call the 17th century modern although it already lies in so many ways beyond our historical horizons.  We could describe this modernity in many ways by looking at its art, its literature, its philosophy, its theology; but for the purpose of Pascal’s thoughts here it suffices to say that in the conditions of modernity the opportunities for distraction proliferate.  This should not be very controversial and at first glance perhaps does not look very worrisome either; however, as these two quotes from the Pensées indicate, Pascal discerns in this condition a peculiarly vivid example of the maladies afflicting humankind after its Fall.  What’s more, this symptom has grown only more severe in proportion to our knack for invention: now, as then, we might still work, play, go to the theater, gamble, hunt, go traveling, or pursue honors, esteem, and affection; but we also watch television, play video games, fool around on the internet, fiddle with our cell phones or iPods or iPads or Droids– and read and write blog posts.

Of course these pursuits have their rightful roles to play in human flourishing.  Yet even then, wherever the proper proportions for such activities may lie, we often go far out of our way to keep ourselves entertained– to kill the time, or stay busy, or shorten the wait.  Can we not withstand even a moment without something to do?  The lengths we will often go to fill the stillness sometimes take on the complexion of a quiet but desperate escapism.  Yes, escapism– not of the day-dreamer who yearns to ride off into the sunrise of some more fantastical life, but of the addict who will fix his gaze on anything to keep from having to look into his own face.  Indeed, the language of addiction would not be far from Pascal’s pen in this case; he would likely say that we are dependent upon our myriad diversions as upon sedatives.  Deprive ourselves of them for but a short while, and we become restless, perhaps anxious.  Why should this be?  Our 17th-century friend would locate the answer in our reluctance to face some of the more dreadful elements of our present condition: the brevity of our lives, the frailty of all our loves.  Pascal offers for our examination the many woes which we would sooner cover over than confront.  We might easily accuse Pascal of morbidity, but if that is our immediate response, doesn’t it attest to his point?  Why should we pass over the topic because it’s “too morbid,” “dreary,” “depressing,” when by confronting it we might hope to improve our lot beyond a mere self-induced sleep of denial?

Rather, let us get up and stir each other to wakefulness.  Once we do, we will begin to learn to recognize the brokenness of our condition, not as a meaningless blight to be covered up with endless hollow dissipation, but as a sign of our profound need for healing and an encouragement to press on along the way of redemption in Christ.  For on that journey alone shall we find the everlasting peace which comes, not from diversions of our own invention, but from the love of Our Lord.


Filed in: Columnists, Life

About the Author:

Ink and Quill are Roman Catholic college students studying architecture and philosophy (respectively). Long-time friends and co-writers, they enjoy studying Ancient Greek and attempting to re-create the 1920s (or sometimes the 1220s). Ink rarely sleeps. Quill rarely posts. Both love what they do. They post together at With Eager Feet.

  • Nathaniel Gotcher

    Reminds me of the famous saying of Augustine “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (I forget if that’s exactly right…) The whole concept of a retreat is kind of lost to us moderns…or should I say post-post-post-moderns. We all desire peace, but as usual, we’re terrible at doing what we truly want.

  • Dismas

    This post gives me many to things to think about. Enjoying the still of quiet is something I struggle with often. A certain guilt or temptation always stirs in me; the temptation to believe I’m falling into the error or heresy of quietism; a certain selfishness that I’m not ‘doing something.’

    Living in a world and society so seemingly darkened and in need, I’ll definitely be revisiting exactly what the error of quietism is and is not. Finding a balance between the grace of quite and the error of quietism is something I struggle with often.

  • Nathaniel Gotcher

    I think a good thing to remember is that we are not called to be “active” all the time. We are certainly not necessarily called to “activism.” This is of course why the Church puts such a huge emphasis on the contemplative life. Even for those of us who are not contemplatives are called to “acts” of contemplation.

    Furthermore, it might be helpful to think about it this way: Whatever we’re doing, whether it be work, play, leisure or labor, all can be done for the glory of God. Even things such as taking a nap. The interpretation of “doing” that is so common especially in this fast-paced world, I think, is slightly misguided.

  • Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio touches on this topic in a short post on the biblical story of Martha and Mary. At the end he writes,

    I was once told by a monk that the greatest sin of the modern world is not its lewdness but its busyness. We live in the most distracted, frenetic society of all time. It is tempting in such a society to think we are good Christians and deserve applause because we look [at] God from time to time out of the corner of our eye.

    But the fullness of truth, the fullness of life, the fullness of grace deserves our full attention. Jesus really cannot be merely a part of one’s life, but must be the center of one’s life. It does not mean that our life can’t be full of activities. But unless we preserve some quiet time each day to sit at his feet as did Mary, our action will become distraction and we’ll be as snappy and unhappy as Martha.

    Easy to say, not so easy to do.