“Let’s Read a Book”: Pascal on Busyness and Misery

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“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things” (Pascal, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, 170).

A Reflection from Part III: Two Popular Pseudo-Solutions

We are a busy group of people. And we are often a miserable group of people. But why? Why are we so busy? Why do we rush from moment to moment, task to task, taking little time to stop, rest, reflect, and be still? We can point to a thousand different reasons for this, but most of these reasons, if not all, are superficial. Pascal, however, identifies a unique and I would argue substantive reason fueling our busyness and misery.

Last week I introduced you to Pascal and the Pensées. I noted that his approach to apologetics is unique in comparison to the apologetic works of philosophers both in his own day and in ours. Whereas much of the apologetics we do speaks to believers, Pascal’s approach is designed to engage non-believers. That is, he writes to captivate our attention and forces us to consider the genuinely important things. And once we are captivated by such things, we begin to take seriously the things which we once dismissed so easily.

In the years I’ve spent teaching through Pascal’s Pensées, I’ve found that my students are consistently struck by what he has to say about busyness and diversion. We regularly talk about our busyness and the tyranny of the urgent. Our work schedules, school assignments, life demands, and much more, push us to go as fast as we can without stopping or slowing down. It’s easy to think that our obligations are what drive us. But is that true? Consider what happens when we get in a car and begin a long drive. Or, consider what we do when we finally put our work down in the evening. In the car, we immediately turn on the radio. In the evening we immediately turn on the TV. In those moments where silence might find a brief season of our time, we fill the void with whatever sound we can find. Silence has no place in us. We seem to avoid silence at all costs. Why? Pascal says, “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room” (p. 172). That is, we avoid silence because in silence we come face to face with our unhappy state and run from it as quickly as possible. He goes on to say that we have “a secret instinct driving [us] to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of [our] constant sense of wretchedness” (p. 174). In other words, we seek diversions because we hate the silence. We hate the silence because it reminds us of our fallenness, finitude, depravity, wretchedness, and eventual death. No wonder we work so diligently to occupy our minds. No wonder we are so busy.

But what is the solution to our plight? Do diversions really satisfy? Of course not. Truth be told, the constant grind of busyness actually builds a greater sense of internal struggle and breeds further misery. The solution, as Pascal would remind us, begins in the silence of our hearts where we come face to face with all that shakes us and causes misery. Then and there, we are prone to look to Christ who is Himself the resolution and satisfaction we were made to seek.

Pascal cuts to the quick and forces us to stop and hear in a new way. Once again, I invite you to read with me.

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