Tocqueville, Pascal and Existential Angst

The last 15 months have caused each of us to question our purpose and what we are trying to accomplish with the constant pursuit of so many different things and activities. As Americans, we appear to be pursuing diversion and distraction for their own sake, making us miserable. We appear to be in a frantic search for something beyond ourselves. We seem to be on an endless search for happiness and contentment, but the search leads us to envy, loneliness, and acrimonious political debate. We spend a great deal of time running around, taking kids to youth sporting events, piano lessons, planned get-togethers, school, and tutoring.  We go to work, we take care of the family, we attend meetings, and we take care of the house and yard. We live in this frenetic state of activity and then realize there is no satisfaction in the life we live. We are experiencing existential angst, and it is a prevailing condition in our culture. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this same restlessness in Americans back in the 1830s. Tocqueville saw amazingly energetic people who were constantly chasing opportunities. Tocqueville believed we were good at innovating, which makes us think our problems will be solved and managed quickly. Which, in turn, it seems, makes us restless and eager to move on to the next thing. Tocqueville, in the 1830s, was writing about Americans buying a fixer-upper house and spending years updating the house and polishing it up. When they were about ready to finish – they decided to sell it. There is nothing new under the sun, is there? Tocqueville said, “Nothing is less suitable for meditation than the interior of a democratic society.” He is saying that we are chasing “things” too much and that everything is attracting our notice and attention. Our distractions are making it harder for us to meditate and to think deeply. We do not observe deeply. Our inattention is the greatest vice to the democratic mind.  In contrast to the American mind, a French philosopher pointed toward a different direction. Blaise Pascal was a philosopher, mathematician, inventor, physicist, and writer. He is best known for Pascal’s wager. Pascal believed that a certain kind of restlessness is natural to the human soul and that restlessness points us beyond anything we can find in the world of nature or human art. We can never find complete satisfaction with the here and now, he said.  Pascal did not offer a formula for how we ought to live or the answers to the questions that haunt the human soul. He thought what we are seeking is not within human control and beyond ourselves. His search led him toward God, and it was a life-long journey. Pascal believed we have to seek ourselves.  Maybe that is where we are in our culture today. All these activities, jumping to the next “new thing,” and comparing and liking on social media, have made us realize that happiness is not found in the next activity or the next new thing, but in seeking something more significant than the sum total of our experiences and “stuff.” Something to think about.