The Impossibility of Being Disinterested
Probably one of the most provocative quotes I have ever read came from Blaise Pascal. I had already encountered Pascal’s triangles and his “Wager.” Yet I never heard someone say so concisely what I read from him in the summer of 2002 when Pascal claims it is impossible for us to be completely disinterested in our own well-being.
Pascal says it like this, “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”
The matter of fact way that Pascal presents his beliefs struck me the first time at best as a desire to make a point, and at worst simple. Yet it did not take much in the way of reflection to see that this way of seeing our actions as very plausible. Many people are constantly serving their own interests. The fact that such self-interested behavior is normal is hardly controversial. The fact that Pascal makes no exceptions is what seems incredible.
What about the mother who stays up long hours at night breast-feeding? Is she happy? What about the soldier or the pacifist he mentions? And last but not least, what about the one who commits suicide?
Recently I was talking with the mother of a newborn and she was telling me how nursing her child had caused bleeding (identity protected for all sorts of reasons). Yet she saw pain as worth it, just to see her baby smile. Could I relate? Conceptually I understood her, but in terms of experience, I did not. Yet from her vantage point, nursing to the point of bleeding was worth the suffering because it brought a smile to her boy who cannot say her name yet and could not even see her face clearly.
And the soldier who goes to war does not enjoy dodging bullets, but they prefer it to prison or a hanging (in Pascal’s day), or the shame of not defending the country or of leaving loved ones in danger. Of course the one who stays away from war really needs no explanation—many of us would like war to go away altogether.
What of the person who commits suicide? Surely this is the exception. Yet don’t we know that generally the person that commits suicide finds the thought of living more unbearable, at least in that desperate moment, than the thought of ceasing to exist?
In other words, I agree with Pascal. More than that, I don’t believe that seeking happiness is something that we can change nor that we should try to change. Rather, what we should do is learn to seek happiness in truly happy things. It is truly a joyful opportunity to give to others, way more happy than hoarding for ourselves. It is truly wonderful to serve your country, and it is true happiness for a parent to serve their child. Service and love is not against happiness, it is just learning through experience in faith and the God who created us the way he created us to find joy in what is truly happy, loving Jesus and loving others.
Just like “Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him” of rescuing a people for Himself—so we can endure even temporary sufferings and discomforts for a greater and more lasting happiness. Pascal, as a Christian, does not feel a need to jive some idea of cold, disinterested service with his faith. He believed God does not call us to radically act against our created nature, but rather to learn how we were created to enjoy deep, meaningful happiness. In many ways, I think that is what Jesus came to restore: our ability to find true joy in truly joyful places, in the happiness of the God of all creation.