The gift of boredom

Michael Jensen on what can come from malaise

The great English poet Philip Larkin (d. 1984) once wrote:

Life is first boredom, then fear.

Whether or not we use it, it goes…

He must have spent a lot of time stuck in traffic, or on the phone to the bank.

That we human beings experience boredom seems like a kind of sick joke on us creatures. We have the exhilarating gift of life and all the colours, tastes and sounds of the universe, and yet we are so often stuck not quite knowing what to do with it all. So many of our experiences are grey. The interminable queue. The tedious work meeting. The days in a hospital bed.

And don’t we fear boredom more than almost anything else? The endless fidgeting with our phones is evidence of that. What if I am stuck with nothing to do, and no one for company – nothing to read, watch or hear? The thought induces a feeling of nausea, a horror at the thought of hours passing without stimulation.

There is something spiritual about this malaise. On the one hand, it shows how even the wealth and beauty of the creation are not enough to satisfy our hearts. For that we need the Creator. There is an element of toil in our wrestle with this life that is evidence of the fall. We are frequently blind to the source of the beauty and goodness of the world around us. Our senses are dulled to them, and because we have forgotten to give thanks for them to the great Creator, we have lost the sense of wonder and awe and curiosity at the world.

How could you make sex boring?

We think the antidote to boredom is freedom. We imagine that complete freedom to do anything and to experience anything will keep us excited and stimulated and delighted. And yet, the opposite turns out to be true. Complete freedom turns out to be very boring indeed.

How could you make sex boring? Not, it turns out, by having it with the same partner for years. You make it boring by making every kind of pornography freely available to young people, and see what happens. According to several studies, between 14 per cent and 35 per cent of young men now experience erectile dysfunction. Until 2002, the incidence of men under 40 with this condition was about 2-3 per cent. What’s happened since? Pornhub. Pornhub has made real sex a yawn-fest.

This inability to find delight in the world is the source of deep human anxiety, too. As is pretty well now an axiom, we are living in an age of personal and communal anxiety. It is fascinating that Larkin connected boredom with fear – because our inability to absorb ourselves in the things and the people around us is both caused by and produces a deep anxiety. We know that prison – a place of deliberate boredom – produces deep anxiety in those who experience it. Why? Of course, living with possibly violent people doesn’t help. But the inability to frame a future – the loss of hope in other words – causes us existential worry.

From boredom springs all manner of human vices. Do you remember that scene in Gladiator when Russell Crowe, having engaged in the bloodbath of the arena, screams to the fascinated crowd, “Are you entertained?” I felt that question coming out of the movie screen to me in the audience, having just watched the (admittedly not real) dismemberment of human beings for my own entertainment. Was I any different from the Romans of long ago? Was watching cruelty simply more entertaining than doing nothing?

We are addicted to drama, and we want diversion from the everyday grind, and so we invent entertainments. Reality TV is just the latest way of feeding on our yearning for diversion. But I’ve seen people’s thirst for drama play out in churches and in families. We’d rather destroy relationships than be bored. The drama of a conflict – even a completely trivial one – at least gives me something to feel passionate about and outraged about. What would I do if I didn’t have that grievance to occupy my mind? As a pastor, my sad experience is that a church without a vision and task will become toxic, because there’ll be enough people who need some kind of drama to keep them interested.

In moments of solitude and quiet, we can start to see what we are truly like.

But boredom may actually be a gift. In moments of boredom, without entertaining distractions, we can contemplate the reality of our existence. Boredom can be (in a sense) revelatory. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (d. 1976) once wrote: “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals being as a whole.”

What I think he meant (you always have to say that with Heidegger, because his thought is so complex) is that the experience of boredom is one to be sought, because in it we start to understand what life is really about. For in boredom you finally face reality. You finally peel away from all the dramas with their apparent meanings and you realise just how much nothing matters. As Freddie Mercury would say: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see …”

I think I half agree with Heidegger. Boredom may indeed be a gift. When we are absorbed in entertainments and diversions and the relentless pursuit of scintillating experiences, we are shielding ourselves from profound truths that it takes stillness and pause to see. That is why so many Christian thinkers have sought moments of solitude and quiet. In those moments, though, we can start to see what we are truly like. We can finally begin to contemplate the creation and the creator who made it. We can find in that, not blank indifference, but extraordinary love. The world that we inhabit can only have arisen from the determination of God who loves.

And boredom may reveal to us, not hopelessness, but hope. That we are restless in this life is, in a sense, right. We are not as yet at rest. While boredom may be a sign of our ingratitude to God, and our fear of boredom a sign of our hopelessness, it may also be an experience that reveals that this world is not enough. The greatest Christian virtues – patient endurance, faithfulness and hope – sound boring because they involve the passing of time; but they anticipate the new creation, which is better by far. Somehow, eternal life with God is not boring; though we cannot imagine it, it is endlessly delightful and always fascinating.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.

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