Philosophy forces us to think of the deep questions in life. It’s a topic I love to explore. In Plato’s Republic, Plato brings up a scenario he received from his teacher Socrates. Socrates teaches his students to imagine a race of men who are born in a cave. The race of men don’t know anything other than this cave. They see shadows on the walls of the cave and they think that the shadows are ultimate reality. However, their necks are chained so they can’t even turn around to see what the shadows look like. They do nothing but deal with these shadows all their life thinking that is all there is. They are trying to look at the shadows to get a view of ultimate reality but because their neck’s are chained they can only get a faint view of them. One of Socrates students replies, “What poor suckers these people are.” Socrates replies, “Ahh, that is us.” That is like the human race. There is so much more we just don’t know anything about it. We try to get a glimpse of ultimate reality, but we can’t see it.
The ancients knew this, however today we might be in a worse predicament. Not only can we not view the shadows of ultimate reality, but we are now distracted by a thousand diversions that take us away from looking at ultimate reality. Today, we live in a toy factory full of diversions. These diversions come in the form of materialistic possessions and the sensual pleasures of the modern culture. The first problem is that the diversions take us away from viewing the shadows of ultimate reality. The second problem is the diversions don’t offer us any fulfillment. As Blaise Pascal says, “If man were happy the less diversions he had the happier he would be. But, is not a man happy who finds delight in his diversions.” People are not happy in with all their “stuff”. Those with more diversions (the wealthy) have a higher depression and suicide rate than those with fewer diversions. [http://www.smh.com.au/national/young-rich-people-have-higher-rates-of-depression-and-anxiety-says-study-20131207-2yy6t.html]
So, happiness must come from somewhere else other than these diversions. Happiness comes from outside the diversions, but we are all dependent and liable to be disturbed by a thousand and one distractions today which inevitably cause us stress. So, we are trapped in an endless cycle. We want more diversions to make us happy. It does not make us happy but makes us more stressed. Therefore, the way we deal with this stress is by using more diversions to take our mind off the stress. However, this is not pointing us to the solution it is merely demonstrating our problem!
Therefore, we are going to have to manipulate our unhappiness with technology to take away all suffering because we can’t stand even a little bit of it. But, there is one thing we can’t cure and that is death. What are you going to do about that? Being unable to cure death men have decided in order to be happy is to not think about it. See, only the combination it exists and you are aware of it gives you misery. You can’t change that it exists but you can change your awareness of it through diversions. How can you change your awareness of death? It’s big. It’s the elephant in the room. Well, you need a lot of mice to cover up the elephant. You need a lot of diversions.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft has us imagine being in a car going down a hill with no brakes. You can’t stop the car and at the edge of the hill there is a cliff into an abyss. There is nothing you can do. You can’t get out of the car as all the doors are locked. The car represents your body. Yes, there is something you can do. You can erect a million billboards along the journey and at the edge of the abyss so you don’t see the abyss. Ahh, that is us! Look at all the billboards. Look at all the diversions of stuff we erect to avoid looking at death. Ironically, when we take down the diversions of billboards we erect and start to seriously look at death, we’ll begin to view things from an eternal perspective and not from a small hear and now perspective.
But, instead we fill our days with our trivial diversions. Do we really need all this stuff? Of course we don’t. When we go on vacations do we go to more complicated places with more diversions? No. We go to simple places with fewer diversions. We go to the mountains, the beach, and the lake. We undue our diversions when we want to relax. So, the diversions really don’t make us happy they just mask our unhappiness. Then what do we need to do? We need to unmask the diversions. The one line Pascal gives us is the most interesting: “Sometimes when I get to thinking about the various activities of man in history all the dangers and troubles in which they face at court or in war which give rise to so many quarrels and passions such daring and wicked enterprises and so on (sex, money, power, pleasure). I have often said that the sole cause of all man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly with himself in his own room for one hour.”
We can do that can’t we? Try it one day and see what happens. I challenge my CCD students to try and sit in a room by themselves with no diversions and only their thoughts. They always say it was much harder than they thought. After 5 minutes they thought an hour had passed. No diversions, I can’t think about anything except me? That’s right. If the most boring person you ever met was with you in that room you would be less bored? Does that mean you find yourself more boring than the most boring person you ever met?
Look what our diversions do to us. In a sense, they make us less human. They distract us from looking at the images of ultimate reality. However, once we can drop the diversions and look at the images of ultimate reality, we will begin to see the beautiful picture of who we really are.