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Happiness and Our Need For Quiet

For various reasons, I decided to read Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. Blaise Pascal lived in France from 1623-1662. The word Pensees means thoughts in French. Pascal’s ideas continue to have a profound influence on mathematics and philosophy.

For the sake of these six blog posts I will focus less on math and philosophy and more on ways he is helpful pastorally, that is, in caring for others and ourselves. Though Pascal died at an early age, his ideas, formed as deeply committed Christian, were mature in understanding the human heart (center of our desires, not blood-pumping organ)

Pascal did not live in an era of smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, 300 cable channels, or the barrage of entertainment options we enjoy. That did not prevent him from seeing in people then--and this certainly exists today--a general distaste for quiet and solitude.

            Pascal says this in Pensee 139:

“When 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 unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town.

Pascal does not simply observe that we dislike quiet or solitude. Nor does he stop at saying our unhappiness is because of our inability to be satisfied with what we do have. He explains further the source of this discontent,

“But on further consideration, when, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

Pascal is not saying that leisure and hobbies are bad. Sports, Facebook on the smart phone, concert-going, or whatever 17th century French people did for leisure are not the problem. Rather, silence-destroying distractions become problems when they completely distract us from asking whether we are truly happy and from considering the brevity of life.

It is what we are confronted with in silence that interests me. We hate the thought of our mortality, so we avoid thinking on it. We hate the thought that the next new gadget, app, Super Bowl victory, booze, music tour, Michelin-rated restaurant or relationship truly cannot give us the life we want; so we do not reflect.

Thus we drown out the silence with noise and distraction, because questions like: “Who am I?” or “Is this really worth it?” leave us in despair. We hate the monsters we must face in the light of silence. So we avoid them.

Yet as a pastor, I believe that such confrontational silence is necessary both to our realization that we all are not all that we should be, one way that the Bible describes sin, that we were made for so much more, especially communion with God, and that happiness, true happiness consists in understanding what cannot keep us completely satisfied (entertainment, man or woman, stuff).

Silence is to be embraced because it helps us 1) Enjoy what we have 2) Deeply consider what can make us happy—and when you take time to consider these things, Jesus is not far away, for He Himself is everlasting joy.