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Swimming in A Sea of Distraction

A man swimming in a lake.


Seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal once observed, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  (Pensées)

Pascal's point is not obvious at first, but profound nevertheless.

What he meant was that people feel uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts and thinking about the ultimate issues of life.

We are all bothered by questions of meaning, purpose, suffering, death and the afterlife.   We are unsure where our thoughts will lead us and are therefore uncomfortable being alone with them. There seem to be no answers to our questions, so why bother?

The alternative?  Distraction.

In Pascal's day distraction was probably going to a bar, socializing, going to the theatre or reading the newest and most interesting books of the day. Whatever the distraction, the goal was clear:  avoid the ultimate by experiencing the immediate.

But if seeking distraction was a problem in the days of Pascal, how much more today!  Our internal radar is scanning the horizon 24 hours a day looking for something – anything - that might be interesting, fun, titillating or intriguing.  The online world (is there any other world today?) has us all swimming in a sea of almost endless distraction.  One site links to another.  One story leads to another story. Algorithms feed us story after story on topics that interest us. And we gobble them up. Click after click:  down the rabbit hole we go. 

But at least we escape the ultimate questions and issues that bother us most.  We don’t have to wonder why we are here or where we are going.  We don’t have to face the apparent meaninglessness of life that plagues us from time to time.  We don’t have to think about . . . much of anything.

Yet we never seem to find any kind of resolution or rest.  Distractions distract but never last.  Like a pain-killer, they deaden the pain, but never deal with the problem.  Life just keeps showing up every morning to irritate us for another 24 hours.

Saint Augustine contemplates Biblical truth.

Fourth century theologian St. Augustine faced the same problem.  Finding no ultimate satisfaction in the worldly pleasures of his world, he turned to God and began to discover answers.  He concluded that while all people want happiness, it’s nowhere to be found apart from God.  Because God made us and knows us, he alone has the ability to make us happy.  In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”  We are hardwired to know and serve God.  And until we do, we’re unhappy. In a similar manner, 20th century author C.S. Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Elsewhere in the Confessions Augustine writes, ““Without exception we all long for happiness…all agree that they want to be happy.…They may all search for it in different ways, but all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy.”  Happiness, for Augustine, was not found by looking inside himself for answers, but rather in looking outward toward God as he is revealed in Jesus. 

We were made to know and serve God and find our meaning in a relationship with him.  Psalm 16:11 says, You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  Rather than seeing life with God as being nothing but self-denial and suffering, the writers of the Psalms saw the life of faith as abundant, joyful and satisfying.  King David wrote, “Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you . . . My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods.”  (Psalm 63:3,5) In Psalm 62:5 David writes, “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone; my hope comes from him.”

We would all do well to follow that advice!



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