“All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” said Blaise Pascal more than three hundred fifty years ago. It seemed a dubious claim on first impression. All men’s miseries? I knew Pascal was an accomplished mathematician and would likely have been as precise about language as he was about numbers. This, however, was more of a philosophical statement than a mathematical proof. I suspected he was referring to people’s ability to ponder things eternal but I wasn’t sure.
Pascal was especially proficient in probability, which some claim he invented, and best known for “Pascal’s Wager” quoted here: “Belief [in God] is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”
What’s implied is that should one wager that God doesn’t exist as understood in Christian faith, then live a debauched life, then die to discover there really is a god he would lose everything and spend eternity in hell. I knew Pascal was a man of faith. My reading of him indicated that faith was derived not from mathematical proofs, but from grace. Respected as a man of science, peers would likely have challenged him to justify that faith in mathematical language, and he came up with was his famous wager.
The wager was easy enough to understand even for this mathematically-retarded writer. Though not all will agree, anyone can comprehend what he meant whether atheist, agnostic, or believer - but what was this about human misery caused by not being able to sit in a quiet room alone? Did he mean individual human misery, or that collective misery experienced by nations or cultures? More meaning came to me over time. Won’t say I fully get it yet, but observing my fellow Americans over the past couple of decades, I’m getting clues.
The first clues came watching young people with portable electronic devices. Playing beep-beep games on little boxes, they were completely absorbed, ignoring their surroundings. Others were plugged into devices pouring sounds into their ears, some innocuous, but others angry and degrading. Their attention was focused exclusively on those sounds, excluding all other sensory input - and their own thoughts. It bothered me.
Then came cell phones. Anybody my age remembers when there was no such thing, but after a dozen years or so, my wife, myself, and my elderly mother were the only people I knew who didn’t have one. I gave in finally, but only because there were hardly any public telephones around anymore, so if I was away from home and needed to call it was the only option. The first time I saw someone using one was a sidewalk in Boston. A woman walked along talking to someone who wasn’t there and it bothered me. I was annoyed and couldn’t figure out why.
When strangers are walking on a city sidewalk, we’re together in the same place doing the same thing. We’re each in our own thoughts but aware of one another. We learn not to make eye contact but we’re aware. When some are engaged in animated conversation with others far away, however, they’re not fully present. Then I’d think: so what? They’re strangers. Why should what they do annoy me? As long as they’re not bumping into me, why should I care? If the person being spoken to on the other end of the line were physically present on the sidewalk it wouldn’t bother me, so what difference should it make if he or she is somewhere else?It’s not rational, I know, but I was kind of insulted. I resented that a person whom I’d never met and would not likely ever see again, was choosing to converse with someone else instead of walking along silently with me.
While there are likely some benefits to follow from increased communication between people, I also sensed a fundamental shift in human behavior both individual and collective that didn’t bode well. Then I would ponder Pascal’s observation about sitting alone.
Now we have smart phones which combine beep-beep games with cell phone technology, as well as countless other capabilities and they’re ubiquitous. Traveling through airports or on elevators, or subways, people everywhere concentrate on their smart phones. If they were reading a book, it wouldn’t bother me, I guess because that’s a kind of contemplative exercise. Talking on a cell phone isn’t and I don’t like sitting there listening to one end of a conversation when I’m reading my book, or just sitting and thinking. I’m reminded of people who cannot abide silence and talk endlessly about the inconsequential. To sit alone in a quiet room requires that one be comfortable in his own skin, at peace with his Maker, content with his purpose in life.
I cannot accurately gauge whether American ability to be quietly alone is strengthening, weakening, or is static. I sense, however, that it’s declining. We don’t like our own thoughts. We need to be constantly plugged in to information, mindless beep-beep games, or conversation. Only the last was available in Blaise Pascal’s time, and he recognized a weakness even then. I wonder what he would he say of he looked around here in the 21st century.