On Boredom and Other Meaningful Things
On the one hand, every mundane and tedious situation we encounter in our daily lives has the potential to be meaningful. But when boredom happens because you're stuck in a house for three days with no power; when you're unemployed and confronted with a glut of unstructured idleness; when a medical condition leaves you with mounds of paperwork and insurance claims -- the suggestion that spiritual insight happens in these moments might seem like an insult.
Finding insight in boredom is a difficult thing to do given our complicated relationship to the very structure of time. William James writes that we're in a constant war with the mundane and that boredom (tedium) is a protest against the entire present.
"Close your eyes and simply wait to hear somebody tell you that a minute has elapsed. The full length of your leisure with it seems incredible. You engulf yourself into its bowels as into those of that interminable first week of an ocean voyage, and find yourself wondering that history can have overcome many such periods in its course. All because you attend so closely to the mere feeling of the time per se and because your attention to that is susceptible of such fine-grained successive subdivision...the feeling of bare time is the least stimulating experience we can have."(1)
John Berryman's Dream Sonnet #14 manifests that disdain for the feeling of bare time:
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no
Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
...(click here to read the rest of the poem.)
Perhaps a general lack of inner resources makes us experience boredom as problematic, or maybe it's just the cultural guilt-trip (that little voice in your head) that makes boredom seem like such a bad thing. Regardless, it's ingrained in our culture to seek out distraction and eradicate boredom -- which means that the designers of Angry Birds will continue to make billions off the general fear of tedium. And we'll no doubt go on craving the stimulation of disaster, especially if we can remotely observe bad things happening to other people. And, anyway, even the biggest catastrophes become boring too.
Boredom clearly is not going anywhere. But instead of trying so hard to be constantly stimulated, what if we confronted boredom head-on. It's a fluid and evolving state of mind that hits almost everyone at some time; it doesn't need to be loathed, overcome, or eradicated.
So be bored and notice yourself being bored. "There I am, being bored again." Notice what emotions it brings up, and reflect on who you are when you are bored. Notice other people when they are bored, and commiserate with them (waiting in line is the best place to practice this.) And when that gets boring, go out and do something else.
I wonder: if boredom were culturally embraced as an inevitable but evolving state of mind, would tedium become...exciting? And disasters strike us as genuinely tragic even when they happen to other people?