Some Dim Dazzling Trick of Grace

Image: AFP

Unintentionally, yesterday’s post on sport as religion dovetailed suggestively with the preceding one, “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  In that post I had continued a series of reflections on Nicholas Carr’s analysis of the Internet’s impact on our brains in his latest book, The Shallows combining a brief rejoinder to a strand of criticism frequently directed at Carr with strikingly apropos lines from T. S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”  Distraction was the recurring theme.  The Internet according to Carr habituates our mind to perpetual distraction, and in the long run our ability to think deeply and creatively suffers.  Eliot already laments a culture of distraction in the mid-20th century and seems to be describing us with eerie foresight.

Whether or not we finally judge sport to be a kind of religion, it is certainly a distraction; more precisely, it is a diversion.  As one comment noted, perhaps a bit harshly, it is escapist entertainment diverting us from ordinary life.  Sports may be more than this, and I will suggest that it is, but it is at least this.  And as our embrace of Internet-empowered distraction also demonstrates, we love to be distracted and we crave diversion.  We can hardly stand it if we are without either distraction or diversion for more than a few moments at a time.  We complain incessantly about our busyness, but were it all to stop we would hardly know what to do with ourselves.

This is not, however, a new problem.  Although the condition may now be intensified and heightened, it has been with us at least since the 17th century, and almost certainly before then.  It was in the 17th century that Blaise Pascal began assembling a series of notes on scraps of paper in preparation for a book he never wrote.  When he died at the age of 39 he left behind hundreds of barely organized notes which were later collected and published under the French title Pensees, or thoughts.  Pascal is today remembered, if at all, either for his law of fluid pressure or an argument for God’s existence known as Pascal’s Wager.  Neither quite does justice to the depth of his insight into what it is now unfashionable to call the human condition.

Pascal knew that we needed our diversions and distractions and that without them we would be miserable.  His description of the younger generation sounds wholly contemporary:

Anyone who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself.  So who does not see it, apart from young people whose lives are all noise, diversions, and thoughts for the future?  But take away their diversion and you will see them bored to extinction.  Then they feel their nullity without recognizing it, for nothing could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.

But Pascal is not merely an old crank berating a younger generation he fails to understand.  Pascal applies the same analysis indiscriminately.  Young or old, rich or poor, male or female — for Pascal it just comes with being human.  “If our condition were truly happy,” he explains, “we should not need to divert ourselves from thinking about it.”  As things stand, however,

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things …. What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.  That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.

We need distractions and diversions to keep us from contemplating our true condition, frail and mortal as it is.  For this reason we cannot stand to be alone with our own thoughts and seek to fill every moment with distraction.  Pascal’s view is admittedly rather grim even as it resonates with our experience.  Yet, Pascal knew there was more than this to the human condition.  There was also love and passion, knowledge and creativity, wonder and courage.  Pascal knew this and he insisted that we recognize both the glory and the misery of humanity:

Let man now judge his own worth, let him love himself, for there is within him a nature capable of good; but that is no reason for him to love the vileness within himself.  Let him despise himself because this capacity remains unfilled; but that is no reason for him to despise this natural capacity.  Let him both hate and love himself; he has within him the capacity for knowing truth and being happy, but he possesses no truth which is either abiding or satisfactory.

Pascal insists that we reckon with all that is good and all that is bad in us.  It is our awareness of the possibility of goodness, however, which heightens our misery.  And, yet again, it is our awareness of our misery that is part of our glory.  In the end Pascal believed that “God alone is man’s true good” and Christ the “via veritas.”  With St. Augustine, whose influence permeates Pascal’s thought, he would have prayed, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  Perhaps this is why at times spirituality and the language of worship suffuses our most prominent and powerful diversions.

Augustine and Pascal in turn both helped shape the thought of Walker Percy, a 20th century Roman Catholic novelist.  Percy blended Pascalian insight with a touch of existentialism in his best known novel The Moviegoer (1960) in which the main character, Binx Bolling, finds himself on a search.  “What is the nature of the search? you ask.”

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me; so simple that it is easily overlooked.  The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life …. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.  Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

Near the middle of the novel throughout which Bolling has been amassing clues he thinks are somehow related to the search, he despairs:

… when I awake, I awake in the grip of everydayness.  Everydayness is the enemy.  No search is possible.  Perhaps there was a time when everydayness was not too strong and one could break its grip by brute strength.  Now nothing breaks it — but disaster.

However, through a rather tortured relationship with a very broken young woman named Kate whom he has come to love, Binx begins to see grace in the ordinary.  Near the very end of the novel, while he and Kate are sitting at a service station discussing marriage and the worries that still fill Kate’s mind, Binx notices a man coming out of a church.  It is Ash Wednesday.  Binx watches while the man sits in his car looking down at something on the seat beside him.  The man’s presence puzzles Binx:

It is impossible to say why he is here.  Is it part and parcel of the complex business of coming up in the world?  Or is it because he believes that God himself is present here at the corner of Elysian Fields and Bons Enfants?  Or is he here for both reasons:  through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one and receiving the other as God’s own importunate bonus?  It is impossible to say.

If sport diverts us from ordinary life, what do we make of it?  Is it as Pascal would have it a mere distraction which facilitates our unwillingness to acknowledge our true condition?  Or, taking a cue from Percy, might it be a rupture of the “everydayness,” the ordinariness of our lives that may awaken us to the possibility of the search?  My sense is that they are both right; each is a possibility.  Sports can be merely a distraction conducive to living in bad faith in denial of the truth of our situation.  It is odd, however, that something very much like a spiritual or religious aura so often surrounds sport.  Maybe it is because bursts of grace and beauty appear suddenly and unexpectedly even in the midst of our diversions to remind us that we ought to be searching for their source.  Maybe it is because “through some dim dazzling trick of grace, coming for the one” we receive “the other as God’s own importunate bonus?”

It is impossible to say.

2 thoughts on “Some Dim Dazzling Trick of Grace

  1. Hey Mike,

    Enjoying your posts.

    There’s a lot to chew on here, but I wanted to offer comment on your opening paragraph discussing the escapism of sports. I would wholly agree that sports today does serve to be too much of a distraction. As you said, sports may be more, but it is at least a diversion. I have to ask, though, for who? Is it a diversion, as defined by Pascal, for those who are engaged in the activity? Or is it a diversion only for those who are spectating? The answer may be “both”, but I would argue that it is more of a diversion for the spectator, rather than for the athlete. Athletes struggle with their sport, they strive for greatness, they feel the pain of loss and the exhilaration of success. The reality of life, particularly of the limitations and aptitudes of a body put under stress, are theirs to know and to exercise to whatever end they desire. To be athletic at a given sport requires dedication and discipline – a focused mind content in the moment of action, undistracted by anything. Thus, I would argue, that diversion is a nemesis for athletes, and not a character of sports as such.

    The discussion above may implicitly suggest that the subject is the spectator, but I want to make the point for this reason: encouraging individuals to engage in sports, or in athletic endeavors, may be a way to combat the increasing distractedness we are experiencing as a culture. That is not to say that it is the only way, but it could be one way. Neither am I saying that just because a person starts training in martial arts, or joins an intramural soccer team that they will all of a sudden sit down and start reading Chaucer, or be conversant with classic philosophy, but I do believe that it cultivates a mind-set of discipline. It gets people from behind the computer screen, or iphone touch screen, and into the real world where there are aches, pains, despair, controlled panic, success and elation.

    While one is engaged in such a reality, if that person is intellectually honest with himself, he must discover the limitations of his condition. It is impossible to exercise the body and not discover in that action the human condition: the frailties of our faculties and the brevity of time we have upon this Earth.

    1. The spectator/participant distinction is helpful. If I were to answer for Pascal, I would say that he would apply his analysis to both. I would say in most of the relevant Pensees he has the participant in mind. As far as he is concerned, whether participating or spectating we are engaged in diverting ourselves from the realities of our condition.

      But I tend to agree with you, especially your last paragraph. It may be the case that the one engaged in the sport, if he is reflective about it, is more likely, as Percy suggests, to stumble upon something deeper.

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