The spiritual cost of avoiding boredom
THE boats on Roaring Water Bay are hardly moving. The west Cork wind, often ferocious, has dropped to a whisper and the dinghies are aimlessly bobbing up and down on the tide. George, the seagull, keeps me company, looking out over the vast stretches of the Atlantic towards America.
Nothing much is going on. My body clock is still set to London, twitchily looking for the next fix of doing something exciting. But this tranquil environment resists any demand for perpetual activity. There are no distractions out here from me dealing with me. This is a good thing.
“He who completely entrenches himself against boredom entrenches himself against himself,” said Nietzsche. Decompression is neces- sary, but more emotionally problematic than the simple idea that a holiday is all about fun, food and rest.
August often sits on the intersection between calm and boredom and melancholia.
I stare at my computer screen and ponder the prospect of a little afternoon kip. I can’t quite be bothered to work. The spiritual writers of the early church called it acedia – a sin, they thought, somewhere between sloth and world-weariness.
It was the “noonday demon” that attacks the hermit from the fourth hour to the eighth. Time stands still. Nothing really matters. Acedia is the ultimate crisis of meaning.
There is something indulgent about boredom. It makes me think of posh people in Russian plays complaining they have nothing to do while other people work their arses off in the field. As Schopenhauer insisted, life for the person of means becomes a question of how to dispose of surplus time. Maybe that’s why boredom feels like a problem especially associated with August and not least with children on long car journeys.
But according to the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy Of Boredom, boredom comes to take on a particular and possibly darker inflection with modernity. Having been bored witless writing his PhD about Kant, Svendsen came to see a connection between his subject and his state of mind.
With Kant, God is replaced by the self as the ultimate source of meaning. As traditional structures of meaning are wiped away, boredom comes to be regarded as a very personal sort of failing. And in order to avoid it, various distractions are entertained: travel, drink, drugs, the Xbox, sex, transgressive behaviour – all strategies of avoidance, all hinting at a desperate desire to hold off the acknowledgment of meaninglessness. It is, says Svendsen, a problem characteristic of modernity. Whereas boredom was once bragged about as a mark of nobility, now it is the ultimate in personal failing. Those who are bored are losers.
Perhaps this is why the entertainment industry is more important to us that we are often prepared to admit. It comes to perform the role previously reserved for religion, where the weight of creating meaning is not shouldered by the individual alone. Entertainment keeps meaninglessness at bay.
But precisely because traditional structures of religious belief do not make meaning-generation my own responsibility, it allows us to sit with boredom with considerably less fear. And this, in turn, allows us to sit with a condition that can potentially be much more creative and reflective than being stuck in front of the TV.
Think of those anxious middleclass parents that constantly fill their children’s lives with improvement activities.
It’s probably healthier just to let them be out in the garden and experience boredom, thus leading to making up games or learning to talk to each other.
But, as with these children’s overly managed lives, so too with their parents. We have become far too afraid of boredom and we do ourselves no favours by living a life continually in flight from it. I look up from my computer. George is still there.
All is well. – Guardian News & Media