When we returned to West Point this past July, we did not expect to end up restricted to the same five-mile radius for the rest of the semester. Yet the potent combination of COVID-19 and military force protection measures resulted in a full lock-down on post. The jealousy that we cadets regularly feel as we compare our constrained lives with those ‘easier’ lives of regular college students has gained a fresh intensity with these new regulations.
One purview of Jodel, the anonymous location-based social media platform popular at the academies, reveals the unrelenting complaints and desire to return home for virtual classes. Yet when I think back to April, May, and June, I cannot help but remember me and my classmates missing our friends at West Point. This whole contradiction brings fresh poignancy to that trite phrase: “the grass is always greener on the other side.”
It’s a universally acknowledged sentiment, across cultures – in Persian, they say ‘the neighbor’s chicken is a goose,’ and across time – Ovid wrote in the first century that ‘the harvest is always more fruitful in another man’s fields.’ The profundity of the saying is not just that we long for what we do not have, but that once we finally do acquire that greener lawn or plump goose, we often begin to miss the simpler life we once had.
Amid the demands of life at a military academy, I am used to my time not being my own. From a high number of course credits to mandatory drill and uniform inspections, I normally must fight to find the space to read or think carefully. Quarantined at home in Virginia, the Coronavirus gave me the one thing I most like to complain about lacking: time. I used that time to do a great job of busying myself. After getting my day’s to-do list checked off, I would call a friend, go for a run, or indulge in episodes of The Good Place. But I also used the time to read two authors, Blaise Pascal and Alexis de Tocqueville, who have given me insight into the challenge of living well in quarantine.
At the dawn of the modern era, Pascal wrote, “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Isn’t this sitting quietly the purpose behind much of what we do? Don’t we tell ourselves that after we have finished all our work, gotten the house repaired and the garden tended, and once we have left our corner of the world a little better of a place, that then we will finally be able to rest, relax, and enjoy the fruits of our labors? We are all working towards that time when we can retire – both at the end of our working days and in our vacations. The word vacation derives from an Old French word for vacancy and a Latin word that means freedom from work. These dual connotations capture both our desire to gain freedom from the chains that burden and busy us and the emptiness we tend to feel once they are gone. We want to simply contemplate life, and yet we do not.
Pascal sees two ‘secret instincts’ in man – one arising from the ‘greatness of our original nature’ and the other our ‘constant sense of wretchedness.’ We are stuck someplace between angel and brute. It is this greatness of soul that makes us sense that we can find happiness and meaning in contemplation and beauty. It was while adjusting to a year abroad in Central Asia that God opened my eyes to the immense oceans of the meditative experience. While I have only dipped a toe into these depths, I can begin to see their wonder. Occasionally, we are also graced with glimpses that brush heaven; what C.S. Lewis called joy. I had a glimpse of this beauty for the first time during an early morning run in the Pennsylvanian mountains. I rounded a bend and was struck by a sun so brilliant, it literally stopped me in my tracks. Briefly, I was overwhelmed by this sheer light, my heavy breathing, and the dew in the grass that tickled my ankles. And then the moment passed, and I kept on running, pondering what had just happened.
Yet Pascal suggests that these moments of greatness are dependent upon man knowing that he is miserable. Man is a “thinking reed” – mired in the feeble wretchedness of his mortal condition. Instead of spending vacations in rest and contemplation, we avoid thinking about our mortality by busying ourselves with diversions. During a national quarantine, we read articles titled 50 Ways to Stay Busy During the Coronavirus and fill up our days with honey-do lists. Pascal notes that these distractions are “the main joy of being a king” – “[a king] is surrounded by people whose only thought is to divert him and stop him thinking about himself, because, king though he is, he becomes unhappy as soon as he thinks of himself.”
Today, we are all kings. We are surrounded by technology whose only purpose is to divert us and stop us thinking about ourselves, because, moderns though we are, we become unhappy as soon as we think of ourselves. Without the built-in roles of traditional community, we fall prey to the twin perils of modern society – loneliness and anxiety. Americans struggle with what the former US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, has coined the ‘loneliness epidemic.’ And what is anxiety, but our constant strife and failure to live up to the ingrained belief that we can each be great in our time? Tocqueville recognized that democratic equality exacerbated these two ailments, but Pascal was right that at its core, this is the common condition of man.
Once we finally get past the to-do lists, procrastination, and buzzing cell phones, there are at least two ways to contemplate. One, such as Rousseau’s reverie, is largely about forgetting death. This is the form that attracts modern pantheistic or spiritual society. There is also a second form however, one that is honest about the fearful wretchedness of silence. This contemplation means looking Death hard in the eyes and refusing to blink.
Though many will claim to live their lives in light of their imminent mortality, Pascal maintains that the only way to look at Death without averting your gaze is through faith. This is that wonderful moment he kept recorded in his breast pocket for all his days – an evening at home in 1654. “Fire.” Followed by “Certainty” and “Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.”
But what comes after contemplation? What follows conversion? This is the question that I have wrestled with at home these past few months. I have used the time to refine a life purpose statement, to read and think deeply, to write, and even contemplate. Yet I still find myself drawn back towards Tocqueville’s restlessness and “do not do what I want but do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Political scientist Joshua Mitchell once pointed out that the first and second greatest commandments are the only cures to the twin ailments of modernity – to love your neighbor as yourself cures loneliness and to love God gives us the peace to calm our frenzied anxiety. Again, I turn to Pascal for how to do this: through what he calls ‘the machine.’
What is this machine? It is by no means clear – he only refers to it a few times in all his pensées. Yet it is worth continued reflection. To my understanding, Pascal means the habits, rituals, or disciplines of belief such as going to church or mass, reading and meditating on scripture, praying, joining a community of believers, and even evangelism. Even if we are not certain that we believe and even if we doubt, acting as if we do believe can put us in a posture from which we can experience God at work.
Consider three orders with an infinite distance between each: body, mind, and charity. A conventional machine is composed of oil and metal – of the bodily order. However, it can appear to act on a higher level – to think and calculate. Likewise, the machine of the disciplines is composed of only body and mind, yet it can bring us close to the level of the heart: charity.
We can never make that jump on our own. Pascal writes that the infinite distance between mind and charity makes us reliant upon the supernatural. However, we can continually return to and recondition ourselves to draw near and receive Christ.
Despite his penetrating wisdom, Pascal was too radical. As Peter Lawler described in his book The Restless Mind, Tocqueville critiqued the radical naivety of Pascal’s purity. All of life should not be spent in dispassionate contemplation but instead demands a balance. Tocqueville moderated Pascal’s extremism. We as humans need something half-way, a mix. “Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily” (Pascal) – it is not in man’s nature to simply decide to rest. Active engagement with the world is not only a healthy moderation of Pascal’s radicalism but an obedience to the Creator’s original intention. God labored for six days of creation before resting on the seventh day. There is a mysterious beauty to a Sabbath day of rest balanced with six working days of engagement with the world. This Sabbath is not merely a strange and half-way contrast to an economic life as Tocqueville believed, but a part of our design – the right balance in a healthy life.
In June, we saw a new righteous activity seize the nation – after months of silence at home came protests and a new reckoning with racial inequality and injustice. Whatever the politics of this instance, coming together as a community to work for a just cause and advocating for just treatment of those who have endured injustice is a proper use of our energies. Pascal’s Pensées focus on the solution to man’s anxiety, but barely consider man’s loneliness. This is why Tocqueville’s call to join associations in response to the individualistic danger of democracy is so crucial. We should join in the active life not out of a selfish desire for regard, but in a pure desire to do justice and walk humbly. And we should do this together, in community.
Yet even with these glimpses of heaven – found in beauty, contemplation, and joint activity towards a healthier community – life will never be fully satisfying. Pascal and Tocqueville would agree that this is where Marxist revolutionary responses to the mortality of life inevitably fall short: they can neither reform the soul nor do away with mortality. Which brings us to the profound truth of the proverb. The grass is greener on the other side. On earth we will always face some discontent – with the season we are in or the mistakes we make. But if we step through the fire there is true life. In heaven, the grass is greener, the mountains bigger, and the sun brighter.