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For those whose lives are marked by the rhythms of the academic calendar, time unfolds not as a continuous combination of ordinary and festal days, but instead as a simple alternation of months wherein one is or is not “in school.”

For many academics, it is the time not in school which carries with it both spaciousness and undue pressure. For myself, I begin to imagine all of the things I might do which I have neglected while absorbed with the tasks of the semester. These generally belong to the domain of the quotidian: cooking, exercising, making space for learning. However, the accompanying pressure stems from the fact that I do not imagine basic versions of any of these things. I picture them in an ideal form: mastering French cuisine, writing an entire book draft, undertaking a new hobby, etc. It would behoove me to remember that the summer break is only about ten weeks long.

My approach to this summer was no different. As the close of the spring semester drew nigh, I felt fatigue give way to a renewed surge of excitement; I was certain these endeavors would result in my feeling more human, more energetic, and more thoughtful. I envisioned the good life.

But I was met with the ultimate opposition: a newborn.

Although I had chosen a research project and renewed my gym membership, my eight-week-old was not interested in this picture of productivity. Instead, he required that we engage in a never-ending process of eating, diapering, and sleeping (or praying for sleep). This was truly ordinary.

Although an age-old experience, the process of engaging with these ordinary days as a new parent has been puzzling. The first time he smiled, I knew that the most important thing I could do with my time was to smile back at him. As the days progressed, however, I became increasingly distressed that I was not working with much focus on any one of my summertime projects. Instead, I have been constantly distracted by the very physical needs of another human. This distraction has become an enemy I’ve tried to outwit. What if I get to the end of this summer and see only this time I have “wasted?” Can I really afford to simply sit alone with my son, devoting hours to only being with him?

As I asked myself this question, the words of Blaise Pascal came into my mind: “I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.”1 This inability—this discomfort—he attributes to “the natural unhappiness of our feeble, mortal condition, so wretched that nothing can console us when we think about it closely.”2 It is this discomforting quiet which prompts us to keep moving, because when we are still, we tend to think about our wretchedness much more closely.

In Pascal’s estimation, our unending quest for distraction is perpetuated by a paradoxical desire for—and fear of—rest. It is characteristic of humankind to crave rest, but this rest cannot be found without first engaging with the quiet. “From these two opposite instincts arises a confused plan,” he says. We “seek repose through activity, and always imagine that the satisfaction [we] do not enjoy will be achieved if, some obvious difficulties having been overcome, they can thereby open the door to peace.” He continues: “The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion.”3 It strikes me that in many ways, his description of this cycle narrates the manner in which I interact with the rhythms of the academic year and intervening summer break—chasing occupation, rest, and distraction, each in turn.

I venture to guess that my recent drive to seek occupation has sprung partly from the immense discomfort of the “unbearable repose” necessary in caring for my son. The silence I encounter while holding him in a dark room does not allow me to freely pursue the commotion which gives me a clearer feeling of achievement. His needs require that I become occupied in ways that occupy him but that allow me to sit and feel the weight of boredom—the intruder which invades stillness when we do not know what to do with it.

If Pascal is right, perhaps what I have identified as distraction is the stillness that allows me to confront the wretchedness he speaks of. If so, this stillness is threatening to change me.

It would be one thing if quietness automatically inspired one to engage in the project of productive self-contemplation. But it is sobering to realize that the nature of the distraction we prefer is such that it often proceeds from discomfort cleverly and undetected. Many of the distractions endemic to today’s culture are particularly insidious because they allow us to evade thoughts about our wretchedness especially while sitting alone in a room. Could it be that the time given to subconsciously scrolling through images on a phone is due to our tendency to be “so undiscerning that we stray into times which are not our own and not [to] think of the only one that is truly ours?”4 We need not leave our homes to seek exotic entertainment elsewhere. We need only acquiesce to the magnetic pull of silent, internal busyness.

The bad news is that humans, left to themselves without the protection of distraction, are completely and utterly devastated by the weight of their wretchedness. But the good news lies in the fact that the distraction we seek, while keeping us from engaging in the project of sanctification, evidences the fact that we believe the cure for our wretchedness lies outside of ourselves. “From the time he lost his true good, man can see it everywhere . . . some seek true good in authority, some in the intellectual quest for knowledge, yet others in pleasures.”5

As I consider the way in which my initial aspirations to find the true good in summertime productivity have led me to contemplate the weightiness of Pascalian self-reflection, I am reminded that our faith is a strange faith. It acknowledges that from the first temptation in the Garden until now, we endeavor to cope with our wretchedness by way of projects and planning. And so, it offers a salvific alternative. But it does not simply provide a solution to this problem; rather, our wretched state is the very condition which readies us to receive the rest we seek.

When this summer term comes to a close and the academic year once again begins, I am certain there will be a host of new distractions alongside—and clothed in—real and good work. Thus, I am glad for the space which makes it possible to notice the initial discomfort that attends this stillness. With increased attentiveness, it is my hope that distraction will itself become a cue—a mechanism that prompts us to reflect on the nature of the aid to which we turn. In the end, it was the promise of goodness that inspired me to make productive plans. But, like Pascal, I conclude that “It is good to be weary and tired from the useless search for the true good, in order to stretch one’s arms out to the Redeemer.”6


  1. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995), 44.
  2. Pascal, Pensées, 45.
  3. Pascal, Pensées, 46.
  4. Pascal, Pensées, 20.
  5. Pascal, Pensées, 52.
  6. Pascal, Pensées, 124.

Christina George

Christina George, Ph.D., serves as Assistant Professor of Music, Music Department Chair, and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Sterling College. She teaches courses in the areas of music, philosophy of aesthetics, and philosophy of worship.


  • Chase Mitchell says:

    This is so good, Christina. Thank you. I so relate (as I’m sure many academics can) with the sense of “paralysis” and “un-fulfillment” that rears its head, especially, during summer break. In my own field of study, media ecology, folks have observed that our technological environment cultivates digital liturgies of attention, and in so doing create a “tyrannical imperative to optimize everything.” As one media ecologist put it, though, we can’t optimize for rest. The human capacity to abide in God’s daily provision is a critical part of the Christian vocation, and, unlike our professional “accomplishments,” those unseen moments go largely unrecognized by others. But God does see our faithful repose. He’s there when we wrestle with the urge to be “productive,” and instead choose to love the day (and the people) that the Lord has made, exactly as is.

    • Christie George says:

      Chase— thank you so much for your thoughtful response! I will continue to hear echoes of this phrase “digital liturgies of attention” in the coming days, I think.