Is it even possible for humans to sit still?
What if everything we pursue is an unconscious diversion from the insurmountable problem of death?
When Colin quoted Pascal’s Pensées 139 in a recent comment, I realized it had been many years since reading the passage in its entirety. Sustained by a morning coffee, I returned to reflect on the chapter.
When Pascal says, “I have discovered that all human misfortune comes from one thing, which is not knowing how to remain quietly in one room,” he means us to believe this literally. This is not an admonishment to sit quietly — it is the observation that it is not within our capacity to do so. It’s an extremely pessimistic sentiment. (It is Pascal, after all.)
As Pascal sees it, we require constant diversion because every time we consider the objective facts about our lives we face the dilemma of our own demise and frailty. Death — the certain demise of ourselves and everything we love — is a huge psychological impediment! Our mortality, if we stop and think about it for any length of time, would seem to make everything pointless. As a result, we must deploy selective ignorance. Nothing can comfort a human except a diversion from the fact they are going to die. Hence, we are busy… making money, going to war, pursuing recognition — all the things that don’t objectively satisfy but serve the unconscious function of distracting us from death.
For Pascal, the people who “have it all” must be the most miserable because there is nothing left for them to strive to achieve, leaving them with nothing to do but worry about the security of their fortune and placate themselves with empty entertainments.
One thing that dawned on me with this reading is how Pascal expects the premise of Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and, later, the more scientifically validated terror management theory. Ronny recently mentioned the theory in his comment on the illusoriness of originality, so perhaps I was just more primed to see it this time around. Terror management theory sees chronic human busyness as a selective feature: the hominids that survive are the ones that figure out how to procreate and structure societies — even though they simultaneously bear the capacity to see the pointless futility of it all.
The takeaway question: how strongly do you draw a causal relationship between the apparent human need to be busy and the simple fact we know we are going to die (and therefore must mitigate/manage this otherwise immobilizing realization). In earlier research on busyness, I found that someone has already written their thesis on the question, in case you are interested!
So, what do you think about Pascal’s argument? Is it even possible for a human to sit still?
There seems to me a distinct societal element to this, especially when considering the differences between Western and Eastern philosophies. Western thought is fractured, focusing on the individual elements of an issue, often unable to see the bigger picture. Eastern thought tends to be more holistic. I'm overgeneralising I know but still. Eastern philosophies and religions have a far more healthy relationship with death, accepting it as part of the natural order. Us poor westerners have the fear drummed into us almost from birth, who under these circumstances wouldn't feel the need for the ultimate distraction — or should that be distraction from the ultimate. Any inability to be still, through fear of death, is bred into us rather than some inate position. Acceptance of death is perhaps the biggest freedom we can allow ourselves and we should learn from our eastern cousins.
Great short. I checked the denial of death book and terror management theory thanks to you. My grand parents lives at rural are, in a old house doing animal husbandry and agriculture at a level sufficient to themselves and some relatives around them. Years before, when their children reached financial level that they can provide a good home and money to live without work to them my grandparents refused it beside all effort. I think now-days all my uncles and aunts understands that it is purely because of my grandparents fear of having nothing to linger on and reluctantly this making their walk to death faster. Today they benefiting from the merits of technology and aid from their children just to be more connected to them, like having a smart phone to video call them but other than these kind of stuff they just keeping the life same and they looking more feeling alive then most of my peers every time I visit them. So I think standing still is a deadly thing. And due to less need to do something to stay alive, probably every new generation haveing less instinct to avoid it and feeling it’s symptoms more and more.