17. Distraction, Despair, Social Belonging, and Resentment

This is a mild re-working of something I wrote a few years ago. I don’t want to spend so much time dwelling on the negative, on critique, but, on the other hand, it’s important to be cognizant of the bad news to grasp the significance of the good. Still, expect less diagnosis and critique going forward, blame a creative drought for its appearance here.

We begin by assuming that Pascal* and Pieper** are essentially right about the nature of distraction and its relationship to despair.  In short, we seek to alleviate the anxieties of our existence, most especially our terror of death, through distraction, using bright shiny objects to avert our gaze from reality in order to avoid confronting the harsh truths about our nature.  However, these distractions are a mere diversion. They do not resolve our anxieties, merely allow us to avoid thinking about them for a moment.  We maintain, no matter how distracted we are, an awareness of their fundamental hollowness.  More, like addicts, our dependence on distraction grows while its efficacy decreases.  We require progressively shinier distractions to occupy ourselves.  A toddler might be diverted by a cardboard box, an adult requires a VR headset and bag of weed.  Yet, these greater distractions are, by virtue of their size and grandiosity, even more hollow than lesser ones, a hot air balloon has more emptiness within than the red balloon a child waves at a parade. 

The implicit awareness of distraction’s hollowness and our ravenous hunger for ever-more distraction leads to despair.  Every movement towards distraction only furthers the instability of our souls.  We become unable to sit still with ourselves even for a moment.  Thus, we’re caught in a self-reinforcing cycle of despair that is generated by distraction and our desire to distract ourselves from that despair.  There can be no rest.

This is the perpetual lot of man, but the cycle has intensified to a near fever pitch in recent years.  Think, we theoretically have all the means to distract ourselves endlessly at our fingertips.  One could never watch every movie, every TV show, read every book, every interesting substack post.  Yet, we don’t even make the attempt but relentlessly seek out the new, not merely new to us but new to everyone.  This futile seeking reveals our implicit awareness of distraction’s hollowness and the desperate, but unfounded, hope that the next distraction will finally be able to fully tear our eyes away from confronting our own wretchedness.  The lockdown, especially, sent the cycle of despair and distraction into overtime, resulting in profound ennui, anger, depression, and all the emotions that characterize deep despair.

In reaction, we reach out desperately for those things which help moor us in the real and confirm our identity.  These things are predominantly situated within our social connections.  We develop our identity in conjunction with others and have the identity reinforced by them.  The era in which we live is already characterized by the decay of these social bonds and the still-recent traumatic severing of the mass of society from even everyday social contact (even though this severance has, for most of us, passed), has left those bonds even more attenuated.  There are very few sources of social belonging, and we are unable to access even those that still exist.

As a consequence, these bonds are displaced almost entirely to the remote, to identities that can be packaged and signaled over social media.  When an opportunity to rally around a particular social identity arises, we desperately grab for it like a man walking through the desert who stumbles on a pool of water.  All our efforts become laser focused on quenching our thirst for social identity, for the mass assertion of that identity in union with everyone else.  This mass assertion snowballs until virtually everyone is participating or explicitly not participating as a negative means of accomplishing the same end.  In this realm, it is the non-participant that is truly the enemy, for he refuses to enter into one of the categories of social belonging that this process has generated.  Outside society he is the hostis humani generis

Yet, this social belonging is itself an illusion, yet another distraction and the awareness of its hollowness does not go away.  We have not escaped despair but intensified it.  Our emotional swings become even more powerful and extreme.  Resentment builds. 

There is only one solution.  You must cut yourself off from distraction and turn towards the real.  It will not be easy.  Indeed, the whole reason we have avoided it for so long is because it is painful and hard.  But it is the only way to achieve peace. 

*”I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room…The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.

That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: no one would take it as a gift. 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.

That is why men are so fond of hustle and bustle; that is why prison is such a fearful punishment; that is why the pleasures of solitude are so incomprehensible. That, in fact, is the main joy of being a king, because people are continually trying to divert him and procure him every kind of pleasure. 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 about himself” -Pascal, Pensees

**”The “concupiscence of the eyes” reaches its utmost destructive and extirpative power at the point where it has constructed for itself a world in its own image and likeness, where it has surrounded itself with the restlessness of a ceaseless film of meaningless objects for show and with a literally deafening noise of nothing more than impressions and sensations that roar in an uninterrupted chase around every window of the senses. Behind their paper facade of ostentation lies absolute nothingness, a “world” of at most one-day constructs that often become insipid after just one-quarter of an hour and are thrown out like a newspaper that has been read or a magazine that has been paged through; a world which, before the revealing gaze of a sound spirit uninfected by its contagion, shows itself to be like a metropolitan entertainment district in the harsh clarity of a winter morning: barren, bleak, and ghostly to the point of pushing one to despair.” – Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart


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