The Misery of Distraction

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Mankind has never been a stranger to distraction. Certainly, we live in a time and age in which diversions seem nearly boundless. We turn on Netflix and find show after show catered to our interests. We scroll through social media feeds that have no end, yet this draw to disconnect is no new thing.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and theologian, once wrote that “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries” (Pensées, 171). Pascal in the section of his Pensées (regarding the miseries of life without God) makes the argument that man is drawn to distraction because he would rather not have to reflect upon things such as his mortality, ignorance, and particular sufferings. Man pursues vanity to escape unhappiness. Yet, this escape only escalates his miseries.

Pascal continues, “For it is this [draw to diversion] which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” It is this weariness that we all seek to avoid. The weariness of our lives, our relationships, our own inconsistencies, our own failures and longings, our mortality, and yes, our own shame.

The desire to escape is alluring, yet a life patterned by distraction inevitably leads to ruin– And I would argue, not just ruin for one’s self, but also for our respective communities.

Of course, it is distraction which drives us away from contemplation of both God and self. It drives us to shirk integrity and sincerity: to not call sin sin within ourselves but to passively distract ourselves from having to make such self-evaluation. It is the desire unto distraction which would drive us more towards tweeting than prayer, more towards slander than confession, and more towards consuming beauty than delighting in it.

There is a bitterness to life that occurs when the good things here continue to dissatisfy us.

And the effects of this terrifying boredom transmits itself.

It is there in the way we shrink back from a vulnerable yet necessary conversation with a loved one. It is there in the way we blame-shift to avoid dealing with the problems that exist within. It is there in the way we pit our tribes against another in the hopes that we will defeat the source of this weariness.

Pascal mentioned that this collective, human weariness need not destroy us though. This weariness, perhaps akin to that of the Preacher’s efforts in Ecclesiastes, can help us if we were to let it spur us on to something which would ease it rather than towards that which seeks to avoid it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval monk heavily influenced by Augustine (similarly to Pascal), wrote:

“It is so that these impious ones wander in a circle, longing after something to gratify their yearnings, yet madly rejecting that which alone can bring them to their desired end… They wear themselves out in vain travail, without reaching their blessed consummation, because they delight in creatures, not in the Creator. They want to traverse creation, trying all things one by one, rather than think of coming to Him who is Lord of all. ” (On Loving God, VII).

St. Bernard effectively agrees with Pascal. This weariness causes a longing for something that would cause us to know peace and satiety. Yet, we find this weariness impossible to deal with because its solution is beyond what we can find in other creatures.

When we have a million possible things to do within arm’s reach (or within hand’s grasp of a smart-phone), it is easier to think we can find a permanent distraction to our own weariness than trust that a solution may still be available for us.

It is no secret that both St. Bernard and Pascal saw the Triune God as the solution to such weariness. And of course it is Augustine’s hallmark phrase which they are echoing: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” No amount of distraction, no worldly pursuit or conquest will appease us.

Indeed only life eternal in communion with God can put us to ease and cause us to rest.

And St. Bernard knows what that means for us now who long for that eternal bliss: “To them that long for the presence of the living God, the thought of Him is sweetest itself: but there is no satiety, rather an ever-increasing appetite… Yea, blessed even now are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they, and they only, shall be filled” (On Loving God, IV).

For St. Bernard (and the others), to live now, is to live in anticipation: to not stoop to fulfill an eternal craving with a taste of something that may lead us from that which truly satisfies. Rather, it is to live consciously with the weariness and hunger, to feel our tongues dry for a taste of righteousness, and to acknowledge our own emptiness so that we might be filled by the God who has and will and continues to give himself to us.

 

Annihilation and Creation

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“It’s destroying everything.”
It’s not destroying, it’s making something new.”


Perhaps one of the most stunning and enigmatic films out in theaters this year is Alex Garland’s Annihilation. If you haven’t seen it yet, I should warn you that this post will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it already and you’re the sort of person that digs mind-bending Sci-Fi you should quit reading this and go see it before it leaves theaters. Honestly, I wish I could dedicate this whole post to describing how aesthetically stunning (and terrifying) the film is in the hopes that I will convince you to see it, but I will refrain. Anyways, here’s my shot at interpreting what is going on in Annihilation. 


If it wasn’t made so obviously clear from the trailers, there is something seriously wrong in the world of Annihilation. But as the film begins, before we are even clued into the apocalyptic events that are currently unfolding, we are immediately thrust into considering that at a biological level we are constantly changing, mutating, and tearing ourselves apart. Both on a fundamental level and on the surface, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction seems to be a steady theme within the story, whether it be the conscious decision of certain character or a more insidious sort of self-destruction. However, I don’t think that self-destruction is solely what this film is about.

The amount of times within the dialogue of this film that the words “I don’t know” are repeated is almost maddening, but don’t put it past the director, he knows exactly what he is doing in making this film so ambiguous and so frustratingly vague at certain points.

This film is not attempting to teach a lesson of how the world is birthed from chaos and will eventually return to chaos. It certainly wouldn’t disagree with the notion that part of the fabric of reality is chaotic, but I think it’s important to see that this film holds up a striking tension between the violent and destructive nature of reality and the beautiful and creative elements to our world. Like Kane and Lena’s conversation about God and the world we live in, the writer isn’t so confident to totally discredit Kane’s views that there is something good about the world, there is beauty, yes, but there is also (as Lena recognizes) tragedy seemingly written into the core of it.

The glimmer itself is mutating and horribly mangling things but at the same time it is revealed that it is not attempting to destroy our world but attempting to make something new out of it. Simultaneously there is destruction and creation at work. Within the glimmer is a nightmarish landscape of beauty, violence, and works of art birthed from destruction. Like the exploded corpse which created an oddly entrancing and kaleidoscopic array of fungi, this film attempts to persuade us that at the nature of reality is both a destruction which leads to creation and a creation which leads to destruction.

Unlike many other Science Fiction films, this film is not about alien life coming to destroy the Earth. It’s perhaps more haunting than that. As Lena (Natalie Portman) discovers after fighting to push forward to the center of the glimmer, there’s a strange creator at work who she comes face to face with. After discovering the video footage of her husband Kane committing suicide and talking to what seems to be a glimmer-produced clone of himself, Lena herself enters into the bowels of the glimmer’s nerve center. There she finds her team leader, Dr. Ventress, whose own annihilation releases a beautiful explosion of color and glimmer(?) as her old self decomposes and utterly decays. Lena herself then meets this other creator. As a part of Lena is fused with some other aspect of this creator, a duplicate is formed. While Lena attempts to escape her duplicate, she is forced to reckon with her duplicate as it suffocates, fights, and mimics her every movement. It is perhaps one of the most terrifying and troubling scenes in the whole film, and one in which most of us can relate: trying to flee from the destruction evident in our lives only to be forced back into it by none other than our own self.

After passing out for an undisclosed amount of time, Lena’s duplicate slowly moves her toward Kane’s old bag which contains another grenade of the same variety in which he used to kill himself. Here’s where things get confusing. The duplicate slowly begins to match Lena’s details. She becomes an exact replica of Lena not only matching her movements but her physical appearance and even her psychological attributes. The original Lena then gives the duplicate the grenade as she flees the scene.

Now here’s how I interpret it: upon matching the physicality, the appearance, and the psychology of Lena, this “other” Lena inherits her own self-destructive tendencies thus detonating the grenade, destroying the glimmer’s hub, and destroying itself. This other was attempting to create something new, but by fusing itself with what it was altering, it inherited its self-destructive traits thus destroying itself but preserving and restoring the original creation. Thus, humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction leads in a horribly enigmatic way to its own preservation. This whole film exists in tension with itself, especially considering the ending.

Lena and Kane, having been the only two to escape(?) the glimmer, proceed to reengage with each other. Lena asks, perhaps states, to Kane, “You’re not Kane, are you?” to which he quietly replies, “No, I don’t think so.” He then asks Lena the same question to which we get no response, but we do see a strange glimmer within both sets of their eyes.

I don’t think that this should lead us to believe that Lena’s duplicate is the one that escaped and that Lena was the one who self-destructed. To me, that doesn’t seem to lend itself to be cohesive with the rest of the film which is all about embracing the paradoxical nature of reality. It makes more sense to me to see the ending as Lena and Kane’s duplicate embracing each other to begin the start of a new relationship with remnants of the old one. Whereas Lena’s duplicate self-destructed and the original Kane self-destructed, the original Lena and the new Kane find new life and a new relationship.

Lena and (original) Kane’s relationship we see throughout the film was once beautiful, but was then sabotaged by Lena’s affair, and then began to unravel even more. As we see the team that enters into the glimmer slowly unravel, as we see the environment slowly unravel, and as we see even the glimmer itself unravel, it doesn’t unravel itself into nothingness but rather into something new. In this film, destruction does not lead to annihilation but to creation (and then back to destruction and so forth).

I don’t think we are supposed to come out of this film with much of a conclusion for what the glimmer represents. I don’t think it’s fair to even say this is a film about grief or cancer or working through trauma (although I admit much of it certainly addresses that). The glimmer may not represent anything at all but perhaps it is used as a means to expose us to a question about reality: how do we make sense of life when destruction and creation are fundamental to our world? Or rather, what do we do with our simultaneously beautiful and nightmarish condition? And are beauty and destruction dependent on one another? Rather than resigning to despair or presenting a sentimental answer to this sort of question, this film instead attempts to embrace that tension and comes to the humble but frustrating conclusion of: “I don’t know.”