The Personalist Project

One technique for handling life’s pains and miseries is simply to run from them, to try to distract oneself from the dark side of life and thus not really face the problem. This is, admittedly, not really even an attempt at a “solution” or an answer, but it can allow the individual to go on functioning day-to-day in practical terms.

This can be done with drugs or alcohol, trying to blot out the pain or threat and blissfully overcome it with the aid of artificial stimulants. Another version of this would be trying to “drown one’s sorrows” in the face a particular source of unhappiness or a general weariness or disgust with life. This is often the theme of country songs, e.g. Hank William’s classic “There’s a Tear in my Beer, ‘Cause I’m Crying for You Dear,” with the following creative lyrical variations:  

I’m gonna keep drinkin’ until I’m petrified,
And then maybe these tears will leave my eyes.
I’m gonna keep drinkin’ ‘till I c’ain’t move a toe,
And then maybe my heart won’t hurt me so.
I’m gonna keep drinkin’ ‘till I c’ain’t even think,
‘Cause in the last week, I ain’t slept a wink.

However, one does not have to use chemical aids in order to indulge in escapism. Someone can use his knowledge and imagination to charm away threatening troubles, ignore present reality, and attend to imagined possibility. The “daydreamer” chooses a pleasant dream world rather than beginning to take concrete steps to change his actual situation for the better. This is what Kierkegaard calls “despair of possibility” in The Sickness Unto Death. “Possibility then appears to the self ever greater and greater, more and more things become possible, because nothing becomes actual… At the instant something appears possible, and then a new possibility makes its appearance, at last this phantasmagoria moves so rapidly that it is as if everything were possible—and this is precisely the last moment, when the individual becomes for himself a mirage.” [Chapter III, A, (b), (1)]  This again is a great theme in popular music, e.g., Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” or the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.” (You can tell which is my generation…) The latter song has a chorus straight out of Kierkegaard:

I can make you mine, taste your lips of wine
Anytime night or day
Only trouble is, gee whiz
I’m dreamin’ my life away. 

Of course, this type of escapism, especially in our culture, can also be enhanced with many non-chemical aids. This mental “drugging” can be fed with a steady diet of entertainment keeping the mind busy and filling in the time through cheap thrillers, sensational books, gossip, TV, movies, video games, internet addiction, etc., now all portable and readily available 24 hours a day. An interesting but sobering book in this regard is Mr. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. This can often be combined, paradoxically, with dedication to one’s job, lurching from complete absorption in work to complete absorption in play, providing ample distraction from thought, prayer, love, death, misery, suffering, etc.  Pascal describes this in Pensees #143:

We should only have to relieve them from all these cares; for then they would see themselves: they would reflect on what they are, whence they came, whither they go, and thus we cannot employ and divert them too much. And this is why, after having given them so much business, we advise them, if they have some time for relaxation, to employ it in amusement, in play, and to be always fully occupied.

Moreover, the relatively passive form of distraction through entertainment is not the only type. Someone can also throw himself into activism and keep himself incessantly busy doing things. The goal of the activity may be relatively neutral (stamp collecting, being a fan of a ball club) or it may be something of high value (pro-life, pro-family movement), but it can become an “escape” if it is used to distract from deeper things or from one’s more immediate personal obligations. For example, while there is nothing wrong with being a football fan, nonetheless I remember a feature story years ago on one Oklahoma Sooners “fan-atic” who had made this college football team into his whole reason for living. He’d been to every game, home or away, for five decades and had had enameled into his front teeth for all to see when he smiled “GO BIG RED”—the Sooners nickname. On a more serious level, periodically, even on the level of commitment to high values, there are stories of people who get so committed to their “cause”—even such a crucial ones as defense of human life and family or the spread of the Gospel—that they end up hurting, neglecting, or even destoying  their own families for whom they have a more direct responsibility.

Of course, many of the examples I have used can certainly be a part of either a healthy recreation or a responsible commitment in life if done with balance and moderation. These things, either in the passive or more active form, only get to the level of a dangerous escape if they cause us to neglect deeper and more important things and thereby become even a pseudo-absolute. Either “entertainment” or “activism” can be done in a way that keeps us running from one thing to the next so that we never have time to think, to pray, to recollect, to consider what we are doing and what is the proper balance in our lives.

Why is escapism attractive if it really only avoids facing things? Several possible reasons. First, it is easy to slip into in a classically “slothful” sort of way. It takes effort to address the deeper dimensions of our lives, much less the deeper pains, threats, and miseries. But, various forms of escapism can provide both a distraction from worries and an influx of pleasant, thrilling, or exciting sensations. Second, escapism may be precipitated by the fear or suspicion that there really is no deeper answer to the sufferings of life, so why not just distract and enjoy ourselves. Thirdly, even in someone who is in despair on a deeper level, i.e., who has an awareness of the seriousness of life and of his eternal responsibility but who does not want this, throwing himself into thrilling distractions may be a “last gasp” before either making a decision about faith or giving up on life altogether. As Kierkegaard says, “…he will seek forgetfulness in sensuality, perhaps in debauchery, in desperation he wants to return to immediacy, but constantly with consciousness of the self, which he does not want to have.” [Sickness Unto Death, Chapter III, B, (b), (1), (ii)]

For more on this topic, see Dr. William Marra’s excellent book—if you can find a copy—Happiness and Christian Hope.

Comments (3)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Apr 30, 2012 10:01am

The further I go in life, the more convinced I become that this is the central moral challenge of our lives: to live in reality, when reality is hard and painful and there is escape into less challenging unreality offered in every direction. 

One of my favorite "scenes" or images in The Great Divorce is of the insubstatial souls trying to adjust to heavenly Reality.  The grass underfoot was hard and sharp.  The guide assured the poor soul that his feet would grow stronger over time.

I think often of what Newman wanted inscribed on his tomb: "Out of the shadows and into Reality".

Devra Torres

#2, May 1, 2012 8:16am

Thank you for this post. It reminds me of a homily I heard once about how Mary stayed at the foot of the cross, even though she couldn't "do" anything to help, and how incomprehensible that can seem to us.  She could have tried to distract herself or at least spare herself the pain of witnessing her son's death first-hand, but chose not to.

That said, it's probably time for me to get off the internet and attend to some "immediate personal obligations."

Michael Healy

#3, May 1, 2012 11:47am

It is also true that Our Lord refused to "distract" himself from his sufferings for us in love.  He turned away from the cheap wine that might have deadened his pain at the height of his passion.  So Cardinal Newman says in "The Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion," from Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations:

He would not drink of it; why? because such a portion would have stupefied His mind, and He was bent on bearing the pain in all its bitterness.... If He was to suffer, He gave Himself to suffering; He did not come to suffer as little as He could; He did not turn away His face from the suffering; He confronted it, or, as I may say, He breasted it, that every particular portion of it might make its due impression on Him.

...the sufferings belonged to God, and were drunk up, were drained out to the bottom of the chalice, because God drank them; not tasted or sipped, not flavoured, disguised by human medicaments, as man disposes of the cup of anguish.

And thus He may truly be said to have suffered the whole of His passion in every moment of it.

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