Pascal’s Other Wager
Imagine a person sitting in their living room alone. We don’t know why they’re there. They are just sitting. Alone. With their thoughts. They are facing what Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher, saw as perhaps the most important challenge any one can face, to be content with themselves sitting alone without distractions.
Most of us know Pascal as a brilliant Christian philosopher. Pascal came up with the wager that it makes more sense to bet on the truth of Christianity — with its infinite gains and everlasting losses — than to bet against it. If Christianity turns out to be true, you’re a winner. If Christianity doesn’t turn out to be true, you haven’t lost anything. His wager has been the subject of countless debates and essays for beginning philosophy students for generations.
However, it is what you might call Pascal’s “other wager” that I find most captivating these days. As he stated it himself: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” The implied wager here is, “I’ll bet you can’t do this.”
For almost a year now, many of us have been forced by a pandemic to abide by the terms Pascal’s “other wager,” whether we wanted to or not. And throughout this year I’ve come across a lot of “helpful hints” to keep us from facing whatever it is we might face sitting quietly in a room alone. I’m sure you’ve noticed these too.
The sales of craft projects have soared during the pandemic. Hobby stores are doing big business. Netflix and Amazon Television and other streaming services have become increasingly popular. Baking has become extremely popular too, and some of us maxed-out on banana nut bread months ago. Screen time on computers and iPads and other devices has increased, as has listening to podcasts and audio books. For some of us, the yearning to hear old familiar and much beloved music and the exploration of new music has taken a toll on our credit cards. And, to the surprise of some, the reading of books (the kind made of paper) has been rediscovered. Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the most common remedy of all to the threat of sitting alone quietly, that blaring television, whether set to CNN, Fox, or Gunsmoke.
When I was a kid, it was the blaring television I remember most. Even if no one was watching it, if anyone was home the television was on in the den. You could neither read nor think in the den. The television made certain of that. When I asked why the television was on if no one was watching it, I was told, “Just to have some sound in the house.” But, of course, it was much more than just that.
Now, I think it is important (and it certainly is honest to say), there’s nothing wrong with watching television, streaming movies and the like. There’s nothing wrong with reading, doing crafts, music, podcasts, and baking.
But the question Pascal’s “other wager” poses is this: When does an endeavor (an entertainment, a creative hobby, a restful relaxing activity or a fun channel for curiosity) stop being a mere pastime and become an attempt not to face ourselves, in other words, not just a “pleasant distraction” but a “Fearful Distraction”?
Only today I came across a story reported by the BBC about a fellow who warns that Mindfulness Meditation can actually become a doorway to discomfort rather than a stress relief. My reply was “Duh!!!” Somebody failed to teach the writer that Mindfulness is not a set of techniques to help us lower stress but a way of being attentive to our minds so as to learn to face ourselves and reality. It equips us to go deep into the obsessions and anxieties that make us restless so that we can be liberated from their power over us. Mindfulness isn’t just another way to distract us from ourselves by focusing us on our breathing. Much the same can be said of Christian contemplation.
In the long history of Christianity, there have been some Christians (we usually call them “contemplatives”) who have fled all the distractions they could in order to devote themselves to the life of prayer, meditation and contemplation. They have placed themselves deliberately in those rooms of which Pascal speaks, often alone, sitting in silence. Among the things those Christian contemplatives have taught those of us who are not contemplatives is this: There is an awesome task awaiting each of us in those quiet rooms, and it represents an essential struggle of the soul.
There are ghosts of the mind awaiting us in those quiet rooms. There are armed troops decked out in spiky guilts and pointed regrets ready to ambush us there. There are all the passions, all the cardinal sins of the spirit. And they will stay there in our minds, hearts, souls, spirits, until they are faced down with compassion.
Among the people who have helped me most as I go into that quiet room alone, Thomas a Kempis stands out. His reflections in “The Imitation of Christ” teach us how to deal with threats conscious and unconscious (long before we knew there was a distinction), his prayers suffer the heart to be vulnerable so that it can be healed. Reading him, I often find myself shocked to discover that a monk living six hundred years ago in a Dutch monastery not only felt what I feel, but understood how to deal with these feelings. You may have your own favorites who prepare you to go into that room and sit alone, some Christian, some otherwise.*
When I was in seminary the whole exercise of contemplation (sitting quietly allowing the mind to face its inner vanities and demons, let alone learning to banish them by facing them) was a subject of ridicule, at least in Protestant theology departments. Contemplation and meditation were derisively called “navel gazing.” What many Protestant theologians didn’t realize then — and I so wish we all had — was that it was precisely in contemplation that we might have learned to face the powers that even then were tearing churches and our society (and us) apart. As Pogo said years ago, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
Why didn’t we notice?
Looking back now, maybe the reason why so many of my theological colleagues ridiculed contemplation: they were just whistling past their own spiritual graveyards. As long as they blustered, and as long as they concentrated on obtuse and often abstract doctrinal speculations, they didn’t have to face the terror that awaited them inside their own minds and hearts. They didn’t have to face that scary, tedious work of applying the grace of God to the resentments and hatred, guilt and regrets, obsessions and compulsions, and a thousand other scars within the soul.
It’s funny, thinking back to the first long silent retreat I went on in a Trappist monastery. Returning to campus, a professor friend asked me, “Well was that restful?” I smiled and said, “Not in the least.” Contemplation isn’t restful or relaxing, though it requires a gentle, open and non-reactive spirit. As the psychiatrist and practitioner of Insight Meditation, Mark Epstein, M.D., writes: “Meditation is ruthless.” It “reveals the stark reality of our day-to-day mind.” And it places us in that position either to run from it or to deal with it.
“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole” as the old hymn says, but that healing balm is waiting in a quiet room where sooner or later we must sit quietly — if we will.
*Among the many resources on contemplation, Thomas Merton’s posthumously published, “A Course in Christian Mysticism” (Liturgical Press, 2017) is especially thorough.