In several different places of his Pensees, Blaise Pascal (d. 1662) reflected on diversion, busyness, and distraction. Here’s how he describes it.
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.
In other words, if people would sit quietly at home, they would have to eventually think about the deep and meaningful things of life, including friendship, faith, God, illness, death, heaven, and hell. They keep themselves busy so they can avoid the deep things of life. Their busyness makes them happy on the surface, but miserable way down deep. Pascal also wrote this.
“[People] 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.
This is brilliant. Since God has “put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3.11), people know there is such a thing as true joy and rest. But since humans are sinful and fallen (Rom. 3), we sinfully think we can find joy and rest in the diversions and distractions of this passing away world. Now read these.
“He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain. Indeed who do not see it but youths who are absorbed in fame, diversion, and the thought of the future? But take away diversion, and you will see them dried up with weariness. They feel then their nothingness without knowing it; for it is indeed to be unhappy to be in insufferable sadness as soon as we are reduced to thinking of self, and have no diversion.”
If our condition were truly happy, we would not need diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy.
As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.
The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this it the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves, and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.
Pascal wrote quite a bit more on this topic in his Pensees. It amazes me that he wrote these things long before TV, Super Bowls, Netflix, and booster club meetings. Think about it. How many people do you know of who can just sit quietly “in their own chamber” as Pascal put it? Why can’t they? Why don’t families have evening meals together? Why don’t people keep weekends free of meetings and obligations? Of course, some keep busy because they are people-pleasers (they can’t say no), others are too busy because they want to show off (I work 70 hour weeks!). Some people keep busy because they want to stay away from the home as much as possible (they can’t stand their spouses or kids). The list goes on. But surely Pascal is right. Busyness and distraction divert us from thinking deeply. I’ll end with a few wise words from Carl Trueman.
“Pleasure and fun are good things; but when they become means of keeping us from facing the truths of our creaturely existence, they are profoundly bad for us. …Let us take time…to be bored, to strip away from ourselves the screens we have created to hide the real truths of life and death from our eyes. Let us spend less time trying to appropriate culture for Christianity and more time deconstructing culture in the light of Christ’s claims on us and the world around us. Only then, I think, will we truly grasp the urgency of the human predicament.”