Recently, I heard a story on public radio about a literally shocking discovery. Researchers wanted to study how people think, so they brought people into their lab and had them sit alone in an empty room for twenty minutes. They took away all potential distractions: cell phones, watches, you name it. Then the researchers showed them a button that when pressed gave a nasty electric shock. The subjects were asked to press the button “just for practice.” When they did, they received a shock. The researchers asked if getting shocked was unpleasant — Yes, very — and whether they would pay money to avoid getting shocked again — Yes, they would. Then the researchers told the subjects to sit quietly and entertain themselves with their thoughts for twenty minutes. There were only two things the subject could not do: get out of the chair or fall asleep. The researchers also mentioned (diabolically) that the subjects could shock themselves again if they really wanted to.
Believe it or not, a substantial percentage of the study participants chose to shock themselves during those twenty minutes—to voluntarily undergo a very unpleasant experience they just said they would pay money to avoid.
Why is that? Why is it that we so often choose distraction over solitude or silence? Why is it so difficult to sit alone in an empty room?
Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century polymathic Christian thinker, wondered about this, too. Here’s the beginning of a famous meditation on what he calls “diversion”:
On the occasions when I have pondered over men’s various activities, the dangers and worries they are exposed to at Court or at war, from which so many quarrels, passions, risky, often ill-conceived actions and so on are born, I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. (Pensées #168)
In other words, Pascal identifies distraction as the cause of all our unhappiness. If we were the sort of people who could sit quietly in a room without zapping ourselves, we would be happy. We could say that Pascal sees all the ways we get ourselves into trouble as so many electric shock buttons: unpleasant things we are willing to do to avoid being alone with ourselves.
However, when Pascal thought about it further, he decided that his initial answer didn’t really get to the heart of the matter. It didn’t really explain why it is that we find it so difficult to stay quietly in one room, why we prefer almost anything, even unpleasantness, to attending to ourselves. The reason we prefer self-distraction, Pascal concludes, is that it is difficult for us to bear the reality of who we really are. When we are left alone with ourselves we are faced with our limits, with our weaknesses, with our manifold wickedness, with our mortality, and we would prefer not to think about that. As Pascal describes it, “the natural unhappiness of our feeble, mortal condition, so wretched that nothing can console us when we think about it closely.” Given the choice between confronting the wretchedness of who I am — damaged by sin, marked by ignorance, subject to death and decay — and distracting myself, I will instinctively prefer the diversion.
Pascal pushes the point even further by suggesting that self-distraction extends beyond empty rooms. He suggests that, to a great degree, our whole lives are set up to avoid having to confront the truth about ourselves and our limitations. We keep ourselves busy with school and work and play — all to avoid being alone in a quiet room. We fill our lives with distractions to avoid knowing ourselves, to avoid seeing and thinking about what we are, where we come from, where we are going. This pursuit of self-distraction is an indication of “how hollow and full of filth man’s heart is” (Pensées #171).
Now you might think that this is a very pessimistic way of looking at things. So, let me try to put it more positively. Pascal thinks of self-distraction as an evasion of our wretchedness. But he doesn’t think that humans are just simply wretched; if we saw ourselves clearly, he thinks, we will find both wretchedness and greatness in ourselves. This, I think, is a deeply Christian way of understanding the human condition. Humans are created in the image of God and this is where our fundamental greatness and worth lies. But we have been damaged and wounded by sin, which is the fundamental source of our wretchedness. As Pascal puts it, we are “capable of God,” but we have become “unworthy” of God (#449). This is the paradox of the human condition. Knowing ourselves rightly means coming to know this paradoxical truth about ourselves.
As the theologian Paul Griffiths puts it, in very Pascalian terms, “We are beggars, but we are also glorious, made in God’s image and capable of having the damage and distortion that image has suffered remade and transformed.” The good news is that this healing and transformation are given to us in Christ Jesus, the Redeemer. And it is in Christ that we know and face the truth about ourselves. “Not only do we only know God through Jesus Christ,” says Pascal, “but we only know ourselves through Jesus Christ; we only know life and death through Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus Christ we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or of ourselves” (#417). Apart from him, we cannot stay quietly in one room.
Pascal also gestures towards the ways in which a man’s “incapacity to stay quietly in one room” affects not only himself, but the broader human community. A very different Christian thinker, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, also speaks of the danger distraction poses to community. Bonhoeffer was involved for some time in organizing an underground seminary during the Nazi regime. The seminary involved more than course work; students really did life together. So Bonhoeffer thought a lot about what it means for Christians to live together in community, and about what makes for a healthy Christian community. He wrote a little book called Life Together that’s a powerful analysis of all this. Here’s what he has to say about the danger distraction poses to community:
The person who comes into a fellowship [i.e., a Christian community] because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear. He is really not seeking community at all, but only the distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief period of time…
If I seek community only because I cannot bear being alone with myself, then what I am seeking will slip through my fingers. Despite what I think I want, I’m actually only interested in distracting myself from myself. And this is a misuse of community or of friendship, because I end up using the other and I will end up harming the community, harming the friendship, harming myself.
Bonhoeffer insists on the need to balance community with solitude. “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community,” he says, and “let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” Time for both community and solitude is necessary for a flourishing life. To be a good friend, I must be able to bear being on my own. Otherwise I will end up sucking my friends dry.
Let me try to put this a bit differently. Friendship requires attention. Friends pay attention to each other. Friends listen to each other, even when what is said is difficult to hear. Friends wait on each other, especially when it demands patience. Friends attend to each other even (and especially when) it’s boring. Friendship requires attention. But self-distraction (especially if it becomes a habit) diminishes our capacity to pay attention. If I cannot attend to myself, if I can’t stand to be alone with my thoughts for more than a few seconds without reaching for something to distract me, then how am I to attend to someone else?
Thinking of self-distraction in terms of diminishing our capacity for attention brings us to the way it can harm our relationship with God. Prayer just is paying attention to God. “Prayer consists of attention,” said Simone Weil, “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.” So, the more I can sustain attention, the more fit I will be for prayer. Conversely, the less I can sustain attention, the more difficult it will be for me to pray.
Jesus rebuked the disciples for their failure to remain attentive with him during the most difficult night of his life: “Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mk 14:37–38). In an age of distraction, how much more do you and I need to hear these words? How much more need I pray for the grace to attend to the God who would have me for a friend? As the ordination service in 1928 Book of Common Prayer admonishes new priests: “Therefore ye ought, and have need, to pray earnestly for his Holy Spirit.”
Fr. Christopher Yoder serves as rector of All Souls’ Episcopal Church in Oklahoma City.