pascal was wrong

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

More commonly, this phrase is seen as something along the lines of ‘Every person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.’ And this is a nice notion, lending itself well to an apologetic that insists on the existential inadequacy of life without Christ’s salvific work.

In recent months, I’ve been wrestling fiercely with inner demons, confronting my own dark places and winning some of the battles, while waging others still. In unearthing a lot of the baggage and processing through everything from past and present hurts to memories I literally had to recalibrate, I realized something that deeply bothered me.

I am half-man, half-chasm. There is an enormous hole in my soul, and I’ve spent years trying to fill it, trying to let God fill it, but mostly trying in vain to do it myself. Inversely speaking, it’s like trying to bail the ocean.

Then Pascal and the bastardized version of his quote came to mind. And I thought it over. And while I understand what he’s saying, he’s wrong.

An abyss, even one in the shape of a deity, cannot be filled.

Further, not only can that hole not be filled, I’m not sure God is particularly interested in fulfilling anyone. If it is so that we are incomplete without God, that completion does not complete God, but us; that is to say, that God in this state of affairs is not God at all. We are. It is completing us, and not completing God or God’s work.

No, it is not us who need to be fulfilled, but God. God may well be incomplete without us in all our broken, incomplete–ahem, holy–lack of glory. It is for our frailty that grace is offered freely to those who would embrace the grace giver; that we need not be made whole, but satisfied solely in the Christ-event.

It is this realization that has brought me significant relief and peace in these trying days and months. It may well be what has stemmed the tide. The hole needn’t be filled: it is for this very reason Christ came! Nothing will fill that gap and nothing should, lest we be somehow dissatisfied with the resurrection or somehow find resurrection inadequate. (And many, many religious types do, and with the best of intentions!)

Family, education, career, art, benevolent involvement, passion, religion: these are all great and worthwhile things and worthy of our time, effort and devotion. They will not heal existential wounds or provide fulfillment. While these things are not substance abuse, violence or other self-abusive behavior (often with lasting effects on others), they can very easily have the same pernicious effect, because they, too, can become false idols. Only anchoring into something transcendent of life as we know it will provide any relief at all.

Something like the man who left the tomb empty.

Rather than Pascal, I think Augustine is more fitting: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. 

It is not completion we ought to seek, but rest.


brand name recognition

I was sent a link to a piece published earlier today by Pamela Harding to an open LinkedIn group about ‘personal brand’; you know, one of those nausea-inducing pieces of corporate jargon that only seems to serve to further commodify employees and applicants. It’s easy to roll the eyes and dismiss personal branding, just like ‘synergy’, ‘thinking outside the box’, or ‘working smarter, not harder’: one-sided power phrases that tend to be used to move the goalposts and little else.

While I still bristle at the term, there is something to be said for personal brand, and not merely within the sphere of the work- or market- place, but in life. As philosophy taught me, everything’s an argument. What is marketing, if it’s not a form of an argument, in this instance for a particular noun? And what is personal branding but a form of marketing, in this instance for one’s self?

Everything is marketing, from posting a LinkedIn profile to getting Freshly Pressed. And that’s OK; that’s how you get hired, find the right person for the job, develop friendships, find a mate or make a sale.

That said, branding qua branding is not enough: there is a necessary depth dimension that has to exist, lest that brand be connected to nothing at all. Harding shares a quote from Brian Fanzo that is particularly relevant to this point: “Social media won’t replace a handshake but social will provide you more handshakes and even change the first meeting from a handshake to a hug.” Where Fanzo is on point, it should be further noted that the connection between brand and interaction is not about mere physical presence, but relational intimacy, be it personal or professional (and there is such a thing as professional intimacy…and by that I don’t refer to workplace dalliance, either.)

Brand and presentation is about the possibility of closing gaps [social or physical proximity] and exposing vulnerabilities [intimacy]. A blog post, catchy phrase or jingle, an impressive resume, washboard abs or an hourglass figure may close gaps, but it’s what’s behind individual nouns that engages others. In a lot of ways, over seven years of writing here has undoubtedly closed gaps between myself and you, the reader. Someone who regularly reads my work necessarily has developed an intimate understanding of not just my work, but me myself, no different from having listened to and engaged in the catalog of a musician develops a level of intimacy with that musician. The brand is writing or song, whereas the product is the person behind them.

The distance between brand and product, then, is demonstrative of integrity: a predatory sale has a great brand, yet a most toxic product. A musician may write gushing songs about love and yet be abusive and violent. A church may preach Jesus and yet not show Jesus’ compassion or live out his teachings. A writer can put a bunch of words on a page yet say nothing at all. Brands draw, but quality keeps.

All of this comes back around to brand: who am I? What do I want someone to see? What is evident by my output? It’s not merely a marketing question, I’m not commodifying myself, it’s a philosophical question that ought to challenge me on every level. On my Twitter handle, BBM Channel and on the sailerb facebook page, it says ‘writer | thinker | daddy | husband | human’. Those are all extensions of me, as this blog is an extension of me, both part of my personal brand. Twitter is where I’m generally being goofy or pithy; the blog is where I try to keep my skills sharp.

Writer: The first thing someone sees of me online is my written output. It’s what I’ve been skilled at the longest and is what I want to be associated with professionally.

Thinker: What I hope is reflected by my written output is a dividend of the investment I put in academically: that the work is thoughtful and that I take every topic with intellectual and critical zeal. It doesn’t always work, but on the occasion that it doesn’t, it motivates me to be better at what I do, whatever it is I’m doing and wherever it is I happen to be doing it.

Daddy: The center of my existence are my girls. Relationships and experiences define who we are both by what we do and the communities in which we take part. My girls motivate me to be better in who I am.

Husband: The center of my existence would have not been possible without my spouse. Without her patience and support, I wouldn’t have a family, survived graduate school or any number of ordeals, including our current one. (wife is a girl, too, you know.)

Human: Beyond accomplishments or accolades or occupations, all we are is inspired, animated dust. It’s one thing to be incisive, intellectual or accomplished: it’s something quite different to live in a way that is complementary to the world and people around me. It motivates me to, however great or small, make the world–or, at least, my world–a better place.

This is my argument, this is my brand. I hope it reflects me, and I it. The only way I’ll ever know is through you.


A related postscript: I’m always grateful to you, the reader, for taking time to read my work. Whether you agree or disagree, want to offer feedback or comments or just say hello, you’re always welcome to do so in the comment section, by e-mail (see About the Proprietor) or on Twitter (@8sirvio) or through BBM (C001223C6). The idea is always to generate conversation and build relationships and understanding, or at least it should be.

Regardless, thank you for reading. Hope to hear from you soon.

h/t AF.