Beyond substances, which the Bible rules out for Christians, we have so many other things to divert our attention, to alter our realty—from highbrow art to lowbrow reality television, literature to music, a divine meal to an endorphin pumping workout.
In all of these things we find escape, time away from thinking about our “wretchedness,” as Pascal phrases our sinful state. But I don’t believe all diversion is bad, and some activities can lead us towards light and blessing.
Pascal identifies the problem of diversion, that it makes us dependent on outside things for our happiness, which outside things, we know, are not dependable. When I first read this in college, I was inclined to agree. With so many distractions available to us, especially in the modern world, wouldn’t we be better off to put them aside and to find happiness in quiet and solitude, to, as Pascal also wrote, “Listen to God”?
I don’t think, though, that no diversion is the answer nor that God intended for us to attain a sainthood of happiness by sitting quietly in our room. Pascal points out, “The trouble is that they want [diversion] as though, once they had the things they seek, they could not fail to be truly happy.” The problem is that diversion alone will not bring us true happiness, and some diversion — especially addictive substances or sinful activities – can be consuming.
Similarly, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine-making and revelry, had the dual nature of bringing joy and thoughtless rage. But some of our “agitating” activities have the potential to lift us towards happiness, to joy, glimpsing the blessed and holy.
On the day of September 11, 2001, I was living in Manhattan with my husband. After countless days of endless news coverage that followed that day – without even so much as commercial breaks – and a morbid desire to watch it all, I remember a longing for just an hour of a “Friends” episode and, believe it or not, commercials. I longed for mindless diversion to interrupt my life, to give me a break from the suffocating darkness.
If I had had the wherewithal, I might have found a “healthy way” to divert myself. Instead, the dark of those days seeped further and further into my life. I finally found relief many miles away, six months later in Jackson, Mississippi with the help of medication and the kindest, friendliest southerners you could imagine.
Pascal may be correct, that in our wretchedness it is nearly impossible to find happiness when left alone to ourselves. But I don’t think we’re made to have happiness – or joy – alone. Faith, reaching to and receiving God’s love, is active, and friends are vital.
In her Ruminate blog post, “Dying Safely,”
Whitney Hale wrote,
“I am still experiencing the effects of losing someone that I love. But I do know that there are small acts of grace in the arms of the Savior. Music is my favorite act of grace and my favorite art form. . . . The Sunday following Lillian’s death, some friends and I performed a new, eerie version of ‘O Sacred Head Now Wounded’ and the final words were certainly timely grace in the face of grief.”
In her grief, Whitney describes a glimpse of light and grace through the diversion of music and a gathering of friends. This is a profound way to have joy in this world! Even and especially in the aftermath of death. And it is in no way opposed to how Christ led his life.
He participated in what might be called diversions – a wedding party, the last supper, time with children, feasting and celebrating with friends. Nor is it opposed to God’s creation – how many diversions God has placed in His creation!
From spring flowers to tropical fish, singing birds to the human sense of humor, ability to create art, and relational nature.
Stefani Ross and Brianna Van Dyke wrote in their “Editor’s Note” for the Autumn 2012 issue
of Ruminate, “Unraveling the Dark,” “the arts have a way of piercing through the heavy shadows and the light perma-cheer that can plague us; they unravel the dark in order that we may better gather the light.” Stefani and Brianna point out both the importance and the danger of the dark, and the need for activities such as art that allow us to hold the dark and the light in our lives, to live and know our wretchedness while also experiencing God’s grace.
Alexa Van Dalsem
Alexa Van Dalsem, a grant writer by trade, writes short stories, poetry, a personal blog and, most recently, short movie scripts. In her free time, Alexa enjoys playing with her family and spending time in the great outdoors of her home state, Colorado. Alexa's short story "Black Leather Shoes" was featured in Ruminate's Issue 01: Chewing on Life
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Recently, I was reminded of the writing of Blaise Pascal, a mathematician and Christian philosopher, on the problem of diversion. The occasion was a conversation with a co-worker about her decision to not drink but to find “healthy ways” to relax rather than to “numb” herself. Around the same time, I had conversations about the Colorado ballot issue to legalize marijuana use for those 21 years and older. Drinking and substance use are probably some extremes of diversion, but Pascal writes, “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room. ...What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, not the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our minds off it and diverts us.”