Faced with the prospect of an ambitious and exciting junior spring, I have recently devoted a fair amount of time to reflecting on why I do what I do, why I have made the choices that have charted the course for my semester. My reflections have consistently retreated to recalled excerpts from Blaise Pascal’s Pensees, a collection of philosophical essays and one-liners that were originally intended to be an apology for Christianity. Most are familiar with Pascal (1623-1662) because of his work in mathematics. During the latter half of his life, however, he made equally significant contributions to philosophy and theology (much to Friedrich Nietzsche’s future chagrin). Although Pascal never finished his Apologie de La Religion Chretienne, the existing fragments were released under the ill-fitting publisher’s title of Pensees (“thoughts”) in 1657 and 1658. Of the hundreds of fragments included in the set, the 136th, listed under “Diversion,” has been a frequent intellectual favorite as of late.
For best results, I recommend that you look up Pensee 136 and read the full (very short) essay. For the purposes of this column, Pascal’s essential argument is that we men and women occupy our minds and senses with different means of diversion-the hunt, one of his examples-so that we can avoid the stillness and solitude in which the mind inevitably rambles down the rabbit hole of “the natural unhappiness of our feeble mortal condition.” We do not want the prize but the chase, because the chase distracts us from thinking of what we really are. Translated to our context, Pascal claims that we undergraduates take six courses, work two jobs, enlist to serve, numb out with Netflix, and/or cap off our weeks with exhausting all-night rituals so that we can avoid thinking of our anxieties, our ignorance, our fragility. I recently met with a professor, and during our conversation on this very topic, he reiterated a quote (largely in jest) that he once recited to my freshman-year class: “Sometimes I think that college kids drink so heavily because they get a taste of adulthood and realize that it sucks.”
Disclaimer: this is a far too pessimistic paradigm for me and is not what I’m holding up as the fundamental motivation for all that many of us choose to inundate ourselves with. Nor is it my goal to try to list all the potential reasons for why we do what we do and don’t do what we don’t do (as much as we all enjoy a good conversation about sublimation…).
Based on my above impromptu list of activities, we can distinguish between two main types of “diversion”: leisure-social and work (maybe three types if we include moral-spiritual). These days I am much more interested in work-diversion. Just this month, Bank of America Merrill Lynch had to command its employees, especially the junior members, to take off at least four days a month, on weekends. Even though this is an “Opinions” column, I’ll keep some of my more colorful reactions to myself … it seems that we are less and less able to appropriately enjoy the leisure time that we work so hard for. The diversion that Pascal spoke of was that of gamblers and kings, the vices and hobbies that men used to fill their free time with.
Now, we don’t even allow ourselves free time to fill. To switch back to the academic realm, take the example of a double major or major with multiple minors. What’s wrong with immersing yourself in one field of study? What’s wrong with a limited number of activities?
I do hope that you are bursting with objections and are ready to call me out on my own paradox. Confession: I am a devoted practitioner of the do ever more, excel ever more mentality. Last year I went to the doctor for a routine check-up. The diagnosis: not enough sleep, too much work. I was told to cut back on my workload so that I could budget a full eight hours every night. All I could think to myself was: “Doctor, you are middle-aged, done with your education, established in your private practice, and have a beautiful, growing family … did you take it easy in med school? How can you tell me to do the same?” I couldn’t possibly sketch for you now the entire “why” of my personal philosophy. In a brief gloss, though, I’ll say this much: I believe in having to pay my dues (if nothing else, as an expression of gratitude for the opportunities given me), and I believe that if I was put here, I darn well better do something to improve the place.
But what to make of Pascal’s accusation? Do I occupy myself, with work or leisure, to avoid thinking of my wretched human condition? Would it be better to sit down and simply contemplate the final things? Or should I be simply a creature of unpremeditated action? Here is my practical answer: When these (important) questions are dwelt on for too long, I think we get lost in the oscillation between ambition and inhibition, between action and contemplation. No progress whatsoever can be made from that place of paralysis. Only deeply-rooted self-acceptance-the willingness to look at ourselves and declare, “I am enough as I am, here and now”-and an inexhaustible energy of love can return us to a point of equanimity. Now stop reading and do that assignment you’re avoiding.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.