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32637676My men went on and presently met the Lotus-Eaters,
nor did these Lotus-Eaters have any thought of destroying
our companions, but they only gave them lotus to taste of.
But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotus
was unwilling to take any message back, or to go
away, but they wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating
people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home.

                                   Homer (The Odyssey IX:91-97) 

I have become comfortably numb.

                                    Pink Floyd (The Wall)

Shortly after Odysseus and his men leave Troy, heading home after the interminable siege and ultimate destruction of that City, they land on the island of the Lotus-Eaters. After the horrors of war, with its blood-letting and blood lust, these peaceable folk seem very attractive, at least at first glance. They remind us perhaps of proto-hippies, choosing “peace” and “love” over war and hatred. They certainly seem attractive to Odysseus’ war-weary men who, like disillusioned veterans returning from Vietnam, embrace a lifestyle based on the use of soporific drugs. They desire to be “comfortably numb.” The problem with such a lifestyle choice, as the perennially wise Homer reminds us, is that those who choose it “forget the way home.” The problem is not primarily the drug itself, nor is it the apathy that it induces; the problem is that it distracts us from our ultimate purpose, which is to get home. To reiterate, the problem is not principally the drug, nor the drug-induced torpor; it is the distraction.     

This point is made clear when we realize that we can substitute all manner of other things for the Lotus-plant. Other natural and synthetic drugs will spring to mind but so will drug-free addictive pursuits, such as pornography or the obsessive-compulsive way in which many of us engage in social media. The things with which we choose to distract ourselves are variable and therefore in the philosophical sense accidental; the thing which is common to all these multifarious means of distraction is the distraction itself, which is therefore, literally and philosophically, of the essence.

The best and clearest way that I can exemplify the harmful effects of distraction-addiction is to recall my experience in prison. (Yes, dear reader, I have been to prison, serving two separate sentences as a young man. Those desiring more details should see my book Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love.) During both of my sentences, I spent most of the time in solitary confinement, an experience that nurtured in me a lifelong love for solitude and the time that such solitude affords for contemplation. For most of the second sentence, I lived and worked in the punishment block in which rebellious prisoners were sent to spend time in solitary confinement. For the vast majority of prisoners, solitary confinement was just about the worst punishment imaginable because it forced them to go cold turkey from the distraction-drug to which they were addicted. With no distractions, nobody to talk to, no screen to stare at, and no music to listen to, I have seen prisoners, after a day or two alone in a cell, on the brink of breakdown, clawing the walls and screaming hysterically.

So where is this discourse on distraction leading? Does it have a point or is it nothing more than a distraction itself? The point, to which I hope it points, is Home.

Homer, in his own inimitable way, shows us in the character and voyage of Odysseus an image of homo viator, the man on a journey who experiences the adventure of life as a means of getting Home. To be sure, Homer, as a pagan, does not have the same vision of Home that the Christian has, though his vision of the after-life, as experienced by Odysseus, is much closer to Heaven than many realize and much closer than anything perceived by our own deplorably relativistic Zeitgeist. Odysseus suffers many distractions, including love-lorn goddesses promising him immortality to love-lorn virgins offering him marriage and worldly power, but he ultimately resists and rejects everything that will keep him from his ultimate goal of getting home. Indeed, in an uncanny premonition of the Christian Way of the Cross, Odysseus embraces poverty and humiliation at the hands of the most contemptuous of people as the necessary precondition of his getting Home and claiming his reward.

For the true pagan and the true Christian alike, the way home is paved with the necessity of spurning the transient comforts offered by worldly distraction. The choice for all of us is whether to remain comfortably numb, losing our way as we pursue nothing but panem et circenses (bread and circuses), or whether we choose to remain uncomfortably alive, finding our way as we pursue nothing but the Via Crucis and the Via Dolorosa, knowing that the Way of the Cross and the Way of Sorrows is the Way Home.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Excellent writing, as always.

    Though one thought arises, have the many services offered by the internet today from FB to the articles in this esteemed website come to replace the lotus blossom in many lives?

    The remedy is, of course, obvious, but then what would the world do with millions unable to gain their daily adrenalin fix by nasty verbal fighting in comment boxes? Conservatives (I presume) are not subject to such addiction, but the minions of both Left and Right (as evidenced by occasional visits to their websites) seem quite unable to surrender their narcotic-of-choice.

  2. I appreciate the spirit of the piece, and Odysseus may have resisted most temptations, but how many men would thank their lucky stars to be able to show their heroism by sleeping with a beautiful goddess to save the lives of their companions? Then, when he finally gets home, Odysseus is righteously indignant that during his 20-year absence suitors have dared to court his wife, leading to bloody, vengeful slaughter. It’s all very satisfying for the reader, but Homer knew that kings had privileges not enjoyed by even their bravest, most loyal warriors: divine sex as sacrifice, supreme expectations of their wives and subjects, and the single-minded justice of revenge-killing. For those narcotics, I would gladly pass up the lotus flower. Or maybe I should give myself and my fellow men more credit by saying that we would resist it all since we have Christ as our King, the one stroke of luck–the one star–that neither Odysseus nor his creator had in his sky.

  3. Why must it be a choice between being “comfortably numb” and being “uncomfortably alive”? Why not comfortably alive? I am neither addicted to social media nor materialism, nor is my life sin-ridden Christian guilt. it is joy, success, and strong values.

    There seems to be a view among many Catholics (here) that life is either utter gluttonous waste, or “The Way of Sorrows”. Neither, thanks. Life is to be lived with zeal and happiness.

  4. Dear Mr. Pearce, thank you for your very timely reminder of the graces found in solitude. And thank you, very personally, from me, for sharing the fact of your prison experience. I am grieving the loss of my husband to Parkinson’s. He spent more than half his 82 years in prison. Two weeks before he died, he said to me, “So this is what death is: God comes down and puts us on the Cross with Jesus. We all end up on the Cross, with Jesus.” And he rejoiced because he had work to do. He accomplished that work, and smiled when he saw Someone come to bring him home.

  5. Was just reading Thomas a Kempis, ‘The Imitation of Christ’ Book II (Admonitions concerning the inner life), Section VI (Of the joy of a good conscience):

    ” 3. He will easily be contented and filled with peace, whose conscience is pure. Thou art none the holier if thou art praised, nor the viler if thou art reproached. Thou art what thou art; and thou canst not be better than God pronounceth thee to be. If thou considerest well that thou art inwardly, thou wilt not care what men will say to thee. Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart: man looketh on the deed, but God considereth the intent. It is the token of a humble spirit always to do well, and to set little by oneself. Not to look for consolation from any created thing is a sign of great purity and inward faithfulness.”

    Thanks, Joseph.

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