Do you ever get bored? Oh, forgive me; silly question. Likely, you are bored right now because, chances are, you wouldn’t have looked at this blog unless you were bored. But can I ask you the attending question? Are you also anxious? All too often, boredom and anxiety walk hand-in-hand. So, if you are bored, you may also be anxious. Anxiety often does points to some kind of pathos in our conditions.
In a recent bout of boredom, I noticed that I was also anxious, like something was the matter with being in the state of boredom. I wasn’t aware of where that thought came from. I was in the situation in which I didn’t have any work to do at my job, and was free to leave the workplace. But that thought terrified me. There was nothing I wanted to do in the town I lived in either. There was no one outside my house I wanted to see, and no activity I wanted to do. I thought, “What’s wrong with me?” And then I reflected – “What a weird response! Why must something be the matter with me if I am bored?” And I realized I was under the spell of a thought-habit as old as the hills. The thought-habit is this: any experience of negativity is necessarily a problem within the one experiencing it. Don’t get me wrong. I know there isn’t a necessary connection between boredom and an individual spiritual malaise. However, I was certainly under the habitual thought that there is. Hence, I experienced an anxiety.
After all, isn’t it the most habitual of thoughts? Elizabeth Gilbert, endorsed by pop culture guru Oprah Winfrey herself, says that “boredom is the first sign of a spiritual crisis.” Well, the elevation of boredom to such paragon significance, on one of the most widely-viewed websites in the English-speaking world must warrant at least some consideration. As one reads through endless series of quotes on boredom, one finds these gems: “Rules equal boredom and I don’t like that” (Simon Cowell). “I love heights. I love speed. I’m on the verge of being a pyromaniac. Maybe my phobia is boredom” (Erin Wasson). “There’s a rebirth that goes on with us continuously as human beings. I don’t understand, personally, how you can be bored. I can understand how you can be depressed, but I just don’t understand boredom” (Dustin Hoffman). Of course, all of these pieces of wisdom come from the brilliant minds of people in our fashion and entertainment industry. Even Oprah herself is primarily an entertainer. This is like Monsanto opposing GMO labeling of foods. Entertainers denounce boredom. And so, not being an entertainer, I am inclined to agree with Arthur Schopenhauer when he says, “Boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.”
Let me explain if you weren’t pay attention, distracted or bored somehow by this article. The seeking to be entertained, fulfilled, is one important type of boredom. When the fascination with entertainment increases, so too will the intensity and frequency of experiences of boredom. If this was the boredom I had been experiencing, I truly would be filled with anxiety, for after all, I am saturated by entertainment, and that would be an existential crisis. I am “facebooked / youtubed” out and am not looking to be entertained. The boredom I felt was something more than this. Entertainment boredom is an important kind of boredom because it is so widely experienced. However, that wasn’t the boredom I recently experienced. I didn’t have any money-making work to do, but I always had kids, and a spouse, and there was always plenty do in regard to them. I had plenty of not-yet-listened-to music on my computer (I recommend St. Germain’s Boulevard).
Further, I was able to put a name another type of boredom. In this type of boredom, there is always something to do, but none of it engages you. I call it, tongue-in-cheek, liturgical boredom. I call it liturgical boredom, because like Catholic or Anglican Church liturgy, there is ritual without substance; movement without inspiration. It reminds me of the boredom experienced by those 10 years older than me in the church community of my youth. They changed from time-tested and ritualistic hymns to “praise and worship” music in the church. The hymns for this younger generation did not contain the spiritual engagement they did for the generation of my parents. The hymns were tossed aside primarily out of boredom, a liturgical boredom. I walked through the shopping mall today with the same boredom, because, the ritual of shopping in a mall had lost its spiritual content. I no longer feel the power the advertiser wishes me to feel in buying shit I don’t need. I experienced this liturgical boredom a long time ago, and have been possessed by it ever since. I accept it in the same sense Aldous Huxley says, “Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” There is no anxiety in no longer being a consumer, and it is a boredom that should be embraced joyfully. Boredom of shopping is not entertainment boredom because it has become disengaged with the spiritual content of a generation. It is liturgical boredom. It is disenchantment with the forms of fulfillment of an age.
It all clicked in today when sitting in front of a movie theater in a shopping mall (of all places) which we drove an hour and a half to go to. My partner and I read the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes together on her tablet. She felt boredom as intensely as I did, or even more so. The irony of content Ecclesiastes) and setting (shopping mall movie theater) did not go unnoticed. One of the greatest books of wisdom literature was written out of a deep sense of boredom. In fact, boredom is the pervading mood of the text, and the message that “everything is meaningless” comes from the point of view of the wisest of men in a survey of all the human experience, and realizing that anything of value cannot be measured by its entertainment value or anything else that falls under the category of pleasure or under the category of wisdom (including foolishness). My wife and I laughed out loud at the phrase, “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge the more grief” (1:18). This type of boredom is epistemic boredom. Everything is meaningless.
Unlike liturgical, epistemic boredom is the realization that no form of fulfillment matters in the end. What matters is the fulfillment itself. We were bored because our setting (the community an hour and a half from that theater) and our roles therein are not fulfilling and ultimately offer a range of forms of fulfillment that we just can’t be bothered to attend to. Oh, sure, we are parents and teachers, a translator and an editor. These have their moments, but fall far short on the fulfillment scale, because when we are engaged there we are done so way below the value we feel our work has. People pay crap for jewels. People look at us with a glaze in their eyes…. like the hypnotized look of cartoon characters. Of course our boredom is with these very people, who are mindlessly caught up in the consumer mentality. Epistemic boredom happens when available forms of life become alien.
I retreat into my writing haven, where at least the conversation partner in my head and heart is easily identifiable, and makes a certain amount of sense. I am never bored with him. I retreat next to my partner who, at the very least, is a good friend. But I also divert myself with the void boredom, where I have come to the realization that the forms of life are not fulfilling. I embrace the epistemic, liturgical, and entertainment forms of boredom. Entertainment boredom I don’t identify with because I no longer wish to be entertained. Liturgical boredom is thrilling, because in it is a freedom from the types of rituals mass culture has embraced, and epistemic boredom is the most intriguing. I am intrigued by the notion that I no longer am a form of life. I am a living human individual, loved by God, loved by my partner, loved by my children, and loved by my friends and family. I am not a teacher, and I am not a writer, or an intellectual. I am, thrown, naked, and embraced.