To sit still at home—this was one of the many challenges brought by the pandemic. A society whose equilibrium depended on perpetual motion suddenly had to stop. People trained for unrelenting activity were left to spin their wheels for the indefinite future.
For those fortunate enough to stay healthy and keep their jobs, the pause also brought a strange if somewhat guilty relief. The cancellation of the seemingly urgent activities began to bother us less and less. Lunch with the kids proved more satisfying than meetings with coworkers; planting a garden brought gratifications that adding lines to the résumé never did.
Having put the mundane insanity of our lives on pause, we were given a chance to reflect on how we were spending our days. Many of us said: “I am not going to let myself live like that again.”
And then, without quite thinking about it, we acquiesced to the annihilation of our newfound stillness. We allowed the virtual world to colonize the time the pause had opened up. We moved meetings online. We turned seminars into webinars. We wrote more emails. Lunch with the children got canceled. The weeds retook the garden.
Shutdown life became just as busy, if not as satisfying, as life before the virus. Why do we flee the stillness we know we need? The great French polymath, Blaise Pascal, can help us understand this paradox. “Man’s unhappiness arises from one thing alone,” he writes: “that he cannot remain quietly in his room.”
Pascal suggests that we flee stillness because the pressure of sitting still compels us to reflect on ourselves. When we do so, we find ourselves facing the unedifying spectacle of lives every minute of which has been reduced to an instrument—a resource we burn up in pursuit of an ever-shifting set of goals, many of which we don’t remember why we sought in the first place.
We treat meals as refueling stops, necessary to permit the continuation of work, best kept brief. We treat work as a set of tasks we must get through to move on to other things—which themselves come to seem but more chores. Even the commemoration of our deepest attachments is often reduced to a list of reminders: Call mom! Book the bounce house for the birthday party! Buy flowers for Valentine’s Day! Realizing that we have reduced our lives in this way depresses us.
To avoid the sad spectacle of our restlessness that confronts when we sit still, we throw ourselves back into the whirl of chores, where we find at least the momentary solace of checking things off. Strangely, the awareness that one is instrumentalizing all of one’s time can seduce one into instrumentalizing one’s time still more completely. As Pascal knew, the charm of busyness is that it distracts us from existential emptiness.
We tell ourselves we will rest when our work is finished. But that completion never comes. Urgency is recurrent, expansive, and invasive; it must be assigned a limit, for it will not generate one on its own. Peoples the world over have known this, and have made pausing a requirement, institutionalizing it in forms such as the Friday prayers of Muslims or the Sabbath of the Jews. They have contained the urgent by sanctifying a portion of time, requiring themselves to acknowledge the ultimate.
Our commercial and technological society tends to undermine all such obligations in the name of freedom. But the line between being able to work seven days a week and being compelled to do so quickly disappears. A society that does not grant a pause to everyone—from meatpackers and delivery drivers to software engineers and CFOs— is a society that has not truly left slavery behind. Properly remembered, the pause might teach us that the only limits the urgent will recognize are mandatory limits. Such obligations alone can accomplish the most essential liberation a mortal being can know—the liberation of time.
Benjamin and Jenna Storey are Visiting Fellows in the Social, Cultural and Constitutional Studies Division at the American Enterprise Institute, and professors of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University, and Directors of Furman’s Tocqueville Program. Together, they are authors of Why We Are Restless: On the Modern Quest for Contentment (Princeton University Press, 2021). The Storeys were scholar-presenters at Symposium 2020 and have also blogged for the Institute for Classical Education. Information about their writing and teaching can be found at www.jbstorey.com.
Image: Room in New York (1932), oil on canvas by Edward Hopper, located in the Sheldon Museum of Art (Lincoln, NE)