“The unhappiness of men arises from one single fact: that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” - Pascal’s Pensees (139), published posthumously in 1670. Keeping busy in America is seen as meritorious; while solitary confinement is the harshest of all punishments.
Silent confinement, Pascal believed, forces you to face the demon underbelly of existence. It resembles a truth too miserable to bear. It’s an infinite abyss in which we play an inconsequential role. All of our actions, he wrote, are construed to divert us from confronting emptiness incarnate: dating, earning money, war, the hustle of daily life – they’re distractions from the void. It’s the journey not the destination; the chase, not the catch – distractions dressed as maxims.
Were Pascal alive today, I imagine, he would see democracy in America as proof of his argument. Nowhere is distraction more prevalent than in America: TV; obsession with news; music in your car and your local CVS, preventing the possibility of one moment of complete silence; working out long at the gym; restaurants and movies; the type-a persona, arguably born of American capitalism, always on the go.
Pascal’s distractions are particularly alive and well in American cinema: Hollywood plays an ever-growing role in our culture; while providing escapism is becoming more and more profitable (The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed $2.9 billion; The Dark Knight, over half a billion.)
Las Vegas is the most striking example – an oasis of light, music, gambling, decadence, intoxication, plop in the desert. It’s no coincidence that it’s surrounded by the emptiness and silence of a desert, as the city provides an equally strong distraction from ever noticing the imposing landscape.
Cynicism, though, is too easy.
The flip-side to Pascal’s infinite abyss is completely immersing yourself into your surroundings: the glowing passionate socialite, a perfect pass from a QB, a musician totally in the moment. You’ve likely experienced it yourself when you’re doing something passionately, something that you’re good at, but in which you strive to improve. Academically deemed flow, it’s a state of consciousness devoid of all ego, as if the boundaries between self and the world disappeared. Flow is as inspirational as Pascal’s abyss is a downer, although they both share a transcendental quality which swings between surreal and all too real.
Both distraction and flow are alive and well in America. They’re subjective states that vary across individuals. One person’s gateway to flow is another’s distraction from the abyss. And another person’s distraction is someone else’s flow. Each action in life contains some distraction and some flow - some hollowness and some soul. It’s messy. But that’s freedom.
Media (in order of appearance)
Photo: (1) Portrait of Pascal; (2) Poster advertising Lord of the Rings, fair use rationale: to convey the spirit of the film; (3) Las Vegas Sightseeing World Helicopter Rides
Video: (1) R.E.M., "Drive", from Automatic for the People, 1992 (2) Highlight from the first season of NBC sitcom 30 Rock, 2007
- More concrete examples of these concepts in daily American life
- Application to religion, science, specialties, and industry