February 11, 2014
I recently had occasion to thumb through my dog-eared copy of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. Since I first encountered the Pensées over 40 years ago in Western Civilization at Houghton, I must keep this book at close range among a few select books.
In his discussion of “diversion,” Pascal makes the startling claim: “A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home.” (#136 from Pascal, Pensées, ed. A.J. Krailsheimer, New York, Penguin Classics, 1966.) It’s the kind of line that would make a great prompt for an admission essay to college. Taken out of context, I could probably find equal pleasure in trying to defend or repudiate it.
Taken in the context of his discussion about “diversion,” the intended meaning is clear. At least metaphorically, if not literally, Pascal wants us to see that we are most fully alive when we have dared to be “at home” — to face ourselves as we truly are. Pascal asserts that, fearful of facing our true selves, we “would do anything to be disturbed.” (#136) According to Pascal, this fear of facing ourselves is “why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king, because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. A king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks about himself . . .Make no mistake about it. What else does it mean to be Superintendent, Chancellor, Chief Justice, but to enjoy a position in which a great number of people come every morning from all parts and do not leave them a single hour of the day to think about themselves.” (#136)
Today, one does not have to be a king or a chief justice to afford the “luxury” of being permanently distracted. We live in the age of the democratization of distraction. At any hour of the day or night, anyone can anticipate being summoned from any corner of the globe by various beeps and bells coming from a myriad of gadgets that even a child can run and even the smallest budget can afford. We are never left alone to be fully focused on the task — or the person — at hand. We are always pre-occupied and, therefore, never fully present to this moment or this day. In Pascal’s words, we are never fully “at home.”
Pascal himself certainly spent a lot of time away from home. In his short lifetime (1623-62) he devoted significant attention to science, mathematics, early computers, politics, theology and even the technology of public transportation. He could not have left us the riches of his “thoughts,” however, if he had not made time to be “at home,” to wrestle with the complexities of being human, the puzzle of existence, the haunting specter of death, and the mysterious, but relentless, call of God on his life. What was challenging for Pascal in the 17th century — to make space and time for reflection about the truly important questions — is even more challenging for us in the 21st century.
Sometimes I momentarily yearn for the early days of teaching when I could be reached only by a written message left on my desk by the office assistant telling me that someone had called while I was in class. Those days are gone forever — and all told — I would probably not choose to go back.
With the greater privileges of “democratic distraction” come greater responsibility for finding time to be “at home.” I don’t know what your strategy is, but you might start by including a few of Pascal’s “thoughts” in your daily schedule.
Grace and Peace to you.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976