Why We Don’t Want to Unplug
Computers have brought innumerable changes to our society. Theoretically, they make our lives easier and faster. The Internet helps us feel more connected to others. We enjoy our computers because they save us time, or so we say.
Why, then, does no one seem to have any time today? Why are we so busy?
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, asks the question this way:
“We ought to have much more time, more leisure, than our ancestors did, because technology, which is the most obvious and radical difference between their lives and ours, is essentially a series of time-saving devices. In ancient societies, if you were rich you had slaves to do the menial work so that you could be freed to enjoy your leisure time. Life was like a vacation for the rich because the poor slavers were their machines […] Now that everyone has many slave-substitutes (machines), why doesn’t everyone enjoy the leisurely, vacationy lifestyle of the ancient rich? Why have we killed time instead of saving it?” (Christianity for Modern Pagans, 167-168)
Kreeft said he never could figure out the answer to this question until he started reading the 350-year-old writings of Blaise Pascal. Pascal was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, who in his later years converted to Christianity. His most influential theological work, Pensées (“Thoughts”), was his defense of the Christian faith (though it was not completed before his death). In this work, Kreeft found the answer to his question.
Pascal’s Answer: We Like Diversion
In this work, Pascal writes extensively about the subject of diversion, exploring the reasons why we are so busy, why we seem to always escape into endless activities and amusements. In brief, this was his answer:
“[M]an wants to be happy, only wants to be happy, and cannot help wanting to be happy. But how shall he go about it? The best thing would be to make himself immortal, but as he cannot do that, he has decided to stop himself thinking about it.” (#169)
In other words, diversions help us escape the complexities and miseries of life, the greatest of them being the knowledge that we are mortal. We don’t want to think about our frail lives, the fact that some day our lives will end, so we fill our lives with toys that numb our minds and help us forget.
And today we have a created a wired culture of diversion that would make Pascal turn over in his grave.
Is Death Our Greatest Fear?
“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” – Jerry Seinfeld
When we speak of the fear of death we’re not just talking about an ever-conscious or neurotic fear. Most people are not diagnosed with an acute thanatophobia (phobia of death). Rather, we’re talking about a general apprehensiveness about death, a desire to put the subject of death far out of our minds—especially our own death.
Different cultures in different eras have viewed death in different ways. According to historian Philippe Aries, western culture is in an age of “forbidden death.” Today, death is truly morbid, something that interrupts our otherwise happy lives. Death is now something left up to the experts. People don’t die at home among friends and family, but in hospital beds. Doctors, when they are not healers, are “masters of death,” special practitioners who give dying some level of dignity. Funeral directors are “doctors of grief,” helping the survivors return to normalcy in the shortest possible time.
In the 20th century, death replaced sex as the truly taboo and forbidden subject.
Of course the fear of death is not a new thing. No matter one’s religious beliefs, there is something in human nature that revolts at death, treating it as an invader, something unnatural. And like taxes, it is one of the only inevitabilities. And in a leisure culture such as ours, we have found plenty of ways of distracting ourselves from that inevitability, or we have entertained ourselves with the frivolous notion that death is only something that happens to other people in the movies.
The Psychology of Diversion: Why We Can’t Sit Still
Instead of being alone with our thoughts about our fragile condition, it is much easier to surround ourselves with gadgets. We cannot sit still. We wake up and quickly check our e-mail and Facebook. We drive to work with music to accompany us. Our cell phones are on so we can be reached at a moment’s notice. We come home to our friends TiVo, RSS, and Netflix.
We are, to use the words of Neil Postman, amusing ourselves to death.
With penetrating accuracy, Pascal puts his finger on our propensity to surround ourselves with technology. He writes in Pensées:
“I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. […]
What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, not the dangers of war, not the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us. That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture. That 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.” (#139)
Douglas Groothuis, professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary, comments about Pascal’s insights for the 21st century,
“Blaise Pascal went to great lengths to expose those diversions that kept people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate significance. His words still ring true. In his day, diversion consisted of things like hunting, games, gambling, and other amusements. The repertoire of diversion was minute compared with what is available in our fully-wired and over-stimulated postmodern world of cell phones, radios, laptops, video games, omnipresent television (in cars, restaurants, airports, etc.), extreme sports, and much else. Nevertheless, the human psychology of diversion remains unchanged. Diversion consoles us—in trivial ways—in the face of our miseries or perplexities; yet, paradoxically, it becomes the worst of our miseries because it hinders us from ruminating on and understanding our true condition.” (Journal of the Evangelical Society, September 2004, p.451)
When Slaves Become Masters
We invent machines to be our servants, to wait on us, to make our lives easier and more entertaining, but given our propensity to endless distraction, it is easy for machines to become our masters. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, says technology is literally rewiring our brains. In excess, our digital distractions can be counterproductive, lessening our ability to focus on anything.
Addiction to technology is, in some ways, an addiction to diversion. Deep down we don’t like being alone with our thoughts. We are afraid of what we might hear. We are afraid that our lonely, obscure existence will catch up with us, and we’ll have to face the grim reality that some day our lives will be over.
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament says that Jesus came to “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15, NRSV). Pastor John Piper comments on this verse:
“Have you ever asked yourself how much addiction and personality dysfunction and disordered lifestyle may originate in the repressed fear of death? […] There is something profound here. The point is not that people are enslaved to a constant, conscious fear of dying, but that they are enslaved to a thousand ways of avoiding this fear.” (Future Grace, p.354)
Enslaving habits are the fruit of a repressed fear. We distract ourselves from our mortality through diversions, but in turn we become enslaved to entertainment.
Pascal uses the example of the compulsive gambler. Is he merely after the winnings? No, because if you gave him what he might win as a gift (on the condition that he can’t gamble) he wouldn’t take it. Is he merely after the playing of the game? No, because without the prospect of winnings, the game ceases to be amusing. Rather, the gambler loves holding on to the fantasy that winning will make him happy. There is something, not about the big win, but about the experience of hoping for the big win that the gambler craves. But when he wins, his contentment does not last, and he moves on to the next diversion.
We are creatures with the built-in drive to hope—to anticipate—but combined with a desire for distraction, we move from one amusement to the next, fueled by the anticipation of ultimate rest and satisfaction.
Pascal believed there are two conflicting instincts within us. One instinct drives us to diversion, so that we can forget about our frail condition. The other is a “secret instinct, left over from the greatness of our original nature.” This instinct stems from the image of God stamped upon our souls, twisted and marred by sin, but nonetheless still present. It is an instinct buried deep within us, something that recalls our life in Eden, telling us “that the only true happiness lies in rest” (#139).
This paradoxical mesh of instincts, Pascal believed, gives rise to our belief that we can only find rest through activity. We surround ourselves in amusements believing that behind each one is the rest we’re looking for, only to cross over and pursue yet another diversion.
Pascal writes, “All our life passes in this this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement” (#139). This is our addiction to diversion.
The irony of Pascal’s warnings about diversions, at least for modern, tech-savvy readers, is that he invented the first computer. His mechanical calculator was the forerunner of computer engineering, and today a programming language bears his name because of this.
Pascal invented his calculator in his late teen years (a testimony to his remarkable intelligence). It would be many more years before his dramatic conversion to Christianity, and before he would formulate his theology. We can only imagine what he would think today of how his invention is being used.
Finding Sabbath Rest in a Tech-Culture
How do we unplug? We could make resolutions to spend less time on the computer and more time with our families (which would undoubted be a good move for most of us) but we may end up replacing one habit of diversion for another. Rather, we might do well to learn from the 350-year-old philosopher, and try sitting alone in the quiet.
It is amazing how hard this is to do. When sitting in true quietness, it can seem as if we are surrounded by a pregnant silence. In the quiet we find out just how noise-conditioned our minds have become. We may find ourselves getting restless. In the quiet we face the one person we fear more than anyone: ourselves.
For Pascal, the answer was to be set free from the fear of mortality, something he believed was only found through Jesus. Only Jesus can rescue us from the fear of death, because only He can deliver on His promise to give us eternal life. Only He has been raised from the dead. Assured that he would live forever, Pascal found rest from his addicting diversions, and in this found something more than happiness. He found joy.
On November 23, 1654, the great mathematician and inventor was undone by a powerful experience of God’s presence late at night. He jotted down hasty notes during his prayer and later transcribed those notes on a piece of parchment and sewed it into the lining of his coat. It constantly reminded him of his true hope:
“God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and of the learned….Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy….This is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and the one that you sent, Jesus Christ….Eternally in joy for a day’s exercise on the earth. May I not forget your words. Amen.”