“I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”
-Blaise Pascal, Pensees 139 (translated by W. F. Trotter)
It’s hard to sit still lately, isn’t it? Is that just me? It’s hard to concentrate, too—one writer in my graduate program said that writing his stories feels “silly” with everything that’s going on, and a professor commented that she can play hours of Animal Crossing, but can’t seem to start any of the very good books she’d ordered. Among those of us privileged and lucky enough to stay home, there’s something funny going on. Another friend pointed out those people who are busy on social media, proving how productive they are—he thought they could go ahead and shut up about themselves.
And then, yesterday, I lay down in the grass. And I don’t mean that I escaped the crush and the silly and all the rest: I most certainly didn’t. For the first long time at the park, I was playing Wizards Unite. I was playing as I lay in the grass. I was playing as I walked. There was a goal, and I was going to get to it. And then, in a pause, there was the wind, cold as it slipped around my fingers, and sunlight, warm on one side of my face, and shadow, cool on the other.
In the rest of Pensees 139, Pascal says he’s discovered why people avoid their own quiet room: it’s because we’re all going to die, and it shakes us to think about that, so we have to run around distracting ourselves. It’s because everything we built is going to pass away, we’re going, necessarily, to lose everything, and so our “mortal condition” is so “miserable” that we can’t bear to think of ourselves. So, you know: Pascal, always an upper.
But the sunlight, and the shadow. The carpet beneath my feet. A wave from a neighbor I’ve never talked to, and my wave back. I don’t just mean appreciate the little things. I mean, instead, that it seems our society has been obsessed for a long time with teaching us to distract ourselves from loss and mortality. It seems we won’t let ourselves be still because we’re scared of the big still. So we take, and insist, and build, and yell. We write, and buy, and sell. Pascal pointed out a cage we might have stumbled into. I wonder if right now is asking us, not to find a way out, but to find a way in: our existence is always wound within a place, a time, a certain community. I can imagine this room as a cage. I keep expecting myself to get over my sadness, my confusion, and get back to work. It’s not happening. Perhaps it doesn’t need to. Perhaps I’m turning toward something else. I could imagine, I suppose, the world as a cage, or even the solar system. I’ve done that. I’d like to stop, now. I won’t manage to all at once: the next time I’m uncertain, there will be a voice that says, “Use this time!” There will be a twitch in my hands toward a game or a goal. I’d like to tell that voice, that twitch, “stay here a moment.”
I wonder how things might look if more of us could sit quietly with ourselves.