It’s Opening Day at the College World Series, and I am heartbroken because my LSU Tigers blew a four run lead in the eighth inning of the NCAA Regional and they are not in Omaha. I will have to settle for cheering on our fellow SEC schools, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, because for a die-hard fan like me, not watching is not an option. I don’t make it to the stadium quite as often as I’d like these days, but in college, I was “that” kid, the lone soul toughing it out in the student section through two-hour rain delays against Nobody State. However, LSU’s early exit from this year’s tournament has left me more reading time than I really like to have during the postseason, which I have occupied with Blaise Pascal’s Pensées. That is how my brain happened to slam with the force of a Babe Ruth swing into this:
How does it happen that this man, so distressed at the death of his wife and his only son… seems so free from all painful and disquieting thoughts? We need not wonder; for a ball has been served him, and he must return it to his companion. He is occupied in catching it in its fall from the roof, to win a game. How can he think of his own affairs, pray, when he has this other matter in hand?…
The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. For it is this which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves… and leads unconsciously to death.
Time out, Umpire. Did he just say that baseball is killing me?
If Pascal was speaking of spiritual death, then I admit being a sports fan can be the near occasion of a host of sins. Drunkenness, for one, or the temptation to exhaust one’s savings on tickets, parking passes, fan merchandise, etc. Gluttony finds easy prey at my alma mater on game day; there is no culinary experience on earth quite like an LSU tailgate party. However, the acts of eating, drinking, or buying a ticket are not inherently sinful. A little temperance can allow one to enjoy an evening at the ballpark guilt-free, nor is it the sinfulness of sports and other diversions that Pascal objects to. Rather, it is the fact that they “hinder us from reflecting upon ourselves.”
He goes on to explain that “our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves” about the immortality of the soul, and neglecting this exercise for the pursuit of vain diversions is “monstrous.” No Christian can, in good conscience, disagree with that assertion, and in a society that has turned proliferating distractions into a global economic force, Pascal’s words ring truer than ever before. The screens and speakers that surround us, flashing and screaming for attention everywhere we go, are destroying our ability to focus. We cannot contemplate what to eat for lunch without our minds drifting toward virtual realities. Are such brains even capable of pondering things immortal and divine? Distraction is deadly, and in more ways than Pascal could possibly have understood in the seventeenth century.
I know this. I recognize my own susceptibility, and I strive not to be one of “those who pass their life without thinking of [its] ultimate end.” But I still love baseball, and reading Pascal has not changed that.
First, because baseball–or any sport–is a form of theater. It is a play whose end even the actors do not know. A battle unfolds that pits skill against skill, where elements beyond human control (wind, sun, rain) sometimes intervene to turn drama into comedy or victory into defeat. A story unfolds, and we immerse ourselves in sympathy with the players: a kind of pretending the benefits of which I have discussed on this blog before. There is catharsis in winning, and a genuine lesson in living through a beloved team’s defeat.
Sporting events can, however, offer more. There are only two places I know where people go with the intention of chanting in an assembly: a sports stadium and a church or synagogue. There are liturgical echoes in the way sporting events unfold, and there is real communion–not the heavenly, Eucharistic kind, but human communion–in joining one’s voice to thousands of one’s fellow creatures, in sharing each other’s shouts of joy and groans of disappointment. There are no Republicans or Democrats in a stadium, no Christians or atheists. The only “left” and “right” are on the field. When a homerun sails over the wall, no one asks the person in front of him about his ideology; they just smile at each other and trade a high five. It is this that I love most about baseball. Communion builds community, and it is important, especially in a society as fractured and contentious as ours, to find opportunities to shed our labels and become one.
Of course, communion that is not heavenly holds the danger of fooling us into believing we have found fulfillment in earthly pleasure. This is the danger of all good earthly things, the old Augustinian problem of failing to see the Creator within the created. I suspect this danger is at the root of Pascal’s disdain for all diversions, but is avoiding entertainment really the solution? A cloistered, diversion-free life is a good one, for those who are called to it, but such singular focus on holy things is impossible for most of us. Can you imagine trying to raise children without any way to keep them entertained? But why would you even want to try, when children learn things like empathy, teamwork, and problem solving by playing games?
I do not think “diversions” are the problem, but rather the distorted pride of place we sometimes give them in our lives. Pascal was right that it is incumbent upon us all to reflect soberly on the human condition, to face the hard reality that we are mortal, and not to divert ourselves from the work of the soul. However, I would add that much of the work of the soul is experiential. We choose our diversions because they satisfy at least partially some intrinsic need, and it is important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Whatever you choose to do with your time, the question to ask is, “Why?” If your entertainments are merely substitutes for things that could lead you toward holiness, then it is time to set them aside. But if they still have work to do within you and the people you share them with, then carry on.
Now, let’s play ball!