All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.
Pascal argues that men avoid sitting alone in a room because they are naturally unhappy. He says that if our condition were truly happy, we would not need diversion from thinking of it in order to make ourselves happy. Without diversion, however, man has nothing to deflect thoughts of death, ignorance, grief—thoughts that arouse awareness of his feeble and mortal condition. To be happy, we must remain willfully ignorant of our condition by seeking “bustle, noise and stir…women, war, and high posts”. In a word, “the chase.”
The mistake in this thinking, according to Pascal, is not the seeking of excitement itself, but the belief that the objects of our quests would really make us happy. In this sense, all pursuits are vain. Human activity is merely a diversion from the human condition.
Psychology recognizes two related phenomenon that might explain our aversion to sitting alone in a room with no distractions. Autophobia is an abnormal and persistent fear of loneliness, of being alone, of solitude. There is also monophobia, which can manifest as the fear of being alone at home. But I posit that there is another irrational fear—one not recognized by psychology or medical science—that can explain man’s fear of himself alone with himself. Let us call the condition abyssophobia—the fear of abysses.
Fear of abysses is the exact opposite of the fear of heights. It is a fear of depths—bottomless depths. A man who sits alone in a room dwells in the abyss, which is to say the emptiness of existence, the nothingness of being. He fears he may fall so deeply into himself that he never returns.
If we accept Pascal’s assertion that all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone, can we then conclude that the solution to man’s problems lies in learning to sit quietly in a room alone? The Christian philosopher Pascal would likely say “yes”, provided that man accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. This is implied when he said that man should seek “a more solid means” of escaping from our misery.
In spiritual practices that recognize dualism, enlightenment is attained when dualistic thinking is overcome. Dualism in Christianity is a rather complicated picture, ranging from the division of good and evil gods to the freewill that separates humankind from God to the Gnostic belief that God and mankind are distinct but interrelated.
The ideas of redemption and atonement in Christianity rely on a dualistic view. On the one hand is Man, with his imperfect nature, and on the other hand is the perfect nature of God embodied in Christ. God and creation are reconciled by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and man and God are reconciled by man’s acceptance of Jesus.
Applying the dualistic lens to Pascal’s assertion that “man is unhappy”, it must then be the case that “God is happy.” On this matter Pascal says that “If man were happy, he would be the more so, the less he was diverted, like the Saints and Gods.” From this, we might also say that neither Saints nor Gods suffer from Abyssophobia.
Another Frenchman, Michel Houellebecq, offers a different type of dualism. He refers to the time when a young person takes a strong interest in the world as the domain of the struggle, as contrasted with the domain of the rules. The former is a time when one takes an interest in the world and, in the words of the novelist, you believe in the existence of another shore. And so you plunge into the cold water and you begin to swim.
Pascal’s Pensées, insightful as it is in places, offers scant few answers for the non-Christian dualist (here defined as one who believes in a higher state of man, beyond his mere humanity).
How is he to be redeemed, to atone, for his naturally vain and unhappy state? Should he sit in rooms alone, like the Buddha beneath the Bodhi Tree? Ought he to face his abyssophobia and hope to emerge somehow as a saint, a bodhisattva?
He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain, says Pascal. “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.”
Following university I lived in a 3-bedroom apartment with friends. One night shortly after moving in I found myself all alone and overwhelmed with despair. “Where has everybody gone?” I thought. “What happened to my life?”
For four years my life had been ceaseless bustle, an endless chase. Having at last caught up with myself, I scarcely had a clue what to say to myself. It was a meeting between strangers, and the results were predictably awkward. I went to bed well before midnight that evening, something I normally do only when convalescing.
The domain of the struggle began in earnest for me not during college (which was still firmly in the domain of the rules) but a year after graduation, when I set off to travel the world and become a writer.
Having achieved both goals, I now spend much more time sitting quietly in rooms alone. Regarding writing, the older I get, the more ambiguous I feel about attaching my name to conceptions. As for travel, I find that a walk around the block is just as good for what ails you as a trip around the world.
Writing as vanity. Travel as vanity. Women as vanity. War as vanity. High posts as vanity. A lasting name as vanity. Bustle, noise and stir as vanity. The chase as vanity. All as vanity?
I would like to ask Pascal this question above all others: if one understands that it is the chase, and not the quarry, which he seeks, is this a departure point for the pursuit of truly meaningful activities? Or is the recognition of our vanity the ultimate expression of vanity?
I often take walks along the Willamette River. During the summertime kids hung out along the shore. The girls chatted in groups while the boys took turns jumping into the river.
I love to see young people having fun. Smooth, sinewy bodies, untouched by wrinkles, laughing and smiling in the summer sun. They are beautiful flowers in full bloom. God knows they have their cares and worries, but everything is still provided for them gratis.
You go into debt when you’re older, and not just in terms of money. Debts of gratitude, spiritual debts, emotional debts—so many things to pay back. These kids owe nothing to nobody. For that, I envy them more than for their perfectly-ripe-flower beauty.
Young people understand that life is short. What they don’t understand is that life is also long. At around the age of 30 a great weariness begins to overtake you. “If only life would slow down a little bit,” you think. “I need a little time out of the glare, a chance to rest the senses.”
Life, of course, affords no such timeouts. Reality is unrelenting. The age of the struggle never really ends. Thus the weariness builds, sleep becomes bliss, and Death is no longer so sinister.
“You long believed in the existence of another shore,” writes Houellebecq. “Such is no longer the case. You go on swimming, though, and every movement you make brings you closer to drowning. You are suffocating, your lungs are on fire. The water seems colder and colder to you, more and more galling. You aren’t that young any more. Now you are going to die.”
As it gets to be around 8:00, the time when darkness gains the upper hand on daylight, I feel a great sense of ease come over me. Even when I’ve been pacing the floors and climbing the walls I experience great relief in the waning hours of the day. Soon there will be closure, if only for 8 hours.
Three decades into life the shore you started from has passed out of view. Turning back is no longer a possibility, yet the shore you set out for still has not come into view. You must keep going…but which way to go? Peril abounds. To the North lies an island of cannibals, to the south the Sirens, to the West Scylla and Charybdis.
You must pick a direction and go on swimming, even though you would like to rest. It’s been a very long journey, and there’s much farther still to go. And you’re so very tired.