Boredom is the root of evil. That was the wisdom of Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and he had a point.
Happiness can mean many things, but it probably requires an attitude towards life of gratitude, joy and love. Boredom works against all of that. Boredom replaces joy. We think we want something new, but once we get it the newness wears off and it becomes unimportant. A fine meal is joyful, stuffing ourselves with cheap junk food is a joyless habit. We don’t like being bored. So how do we handle it?
Think about a game of monopoly. Once you have the hotels on the dark blues and greens and know it’s a matter of time before you win the game, the game ceases to be fun. If you’re struggling against an opponent, each with a chance to win, relying on the roll of the dice, then the game is engaging and stimulating. So one response to boredom is to try to add excitement.
Therein lies the wisdom of Kierkegard’s claim. For many people in hum drum routines excitement might be an illicit affair, playing the lottery, heading to the race track, partaking of chemicals to alter one’s state, or things even more destructive.
Of course many people have too much social responsibility to choose those kind of escapes. Socially acceptable methods of relieving boredom include throwing oneself into a career, spreading oneself thin with commitments and social engagements, or becoming addicted to sports, television shows, books or in my case earlier this fall, following pre-election polls. While clearly someone who relieves boredom by constantly reading new books has a much more constructive approach than one who turns to whiskey, it’s an escape nonetheless.
This brings me to another Kierkegaard quote: “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
Boredom seems not only to be a lack of something intriguing to do, but perhaps a disconnect from ones’ self. Boredom is an emotion, or perhaps a message from the soul to the self: “don’t lose yourself…you’re alive, vibrant and you’re wasting that – do something!”
So we do something. But in so doing we can either find/be ourselves, or lose ourselves. Engaging in a hobby, interacting with friends, building community, doing something constructive usually means connecting to ourselves in a way that combats boredom constructively.
The problem is that distractions – actions against boredom that can actually cause us to lose ourselves – are often easier to begin than constructive responses. If I feel bored and have nothing to do I could choose to watch TV, have a beer, and eat cold pizza. That’s an easily accessible way to try to counter act boredom, but it brings no joy. Sitting on the couch clicking through stations with a slight beer buzz and chewing at a cold pizza is a distraction. It’s not joyful, but distracts from boredom.
Working on a project, exercising, family activities, getting together with friends, or volunteering to help others could bring joy and connect one to their real self, but it takes more effort than trudging over to the sofa and grabbing the remote.
The irony of our convenience oriented world is that it is really a distraction-oriented world, one we can lose ourselves in more readily than if we were actually confronted directly with the question of what we need to do to survive. If we had to tend to the garden to assure we’d have food in the winter we’d not be so easily played and manipulated by marketers selling us the latest product we absolutely need and which will bring us at least 10 minutes of distraction disguised as joy.
Boredom is the curse of the modern. We have everything at our fingertips and survival is no longer a struggle. So we can choose – dive into meaningless distractions or focus on not losing ourselves. The distractions may yield dramas that cause some to seem to jump from life-crisis to life-crisis. Or they may create a laziness that leads to an anxious depression and addictive/self-destructive behaviors. To gain weight in front of the television and choose inaction in a world so full of promise seems insane – rejecting life in favor of emptiness. To fall into soap-opera like personal dramas may add excitement, but rarely contentment. Yet it is so easy to fall into those traps.
Ironic. We’ve achieved so much and yet have not mastered ourselves. In some ways the danger posed by boredom is worse than the threats to life and limb from past eras. At least then we were forced to assert ourselves, recognizing the danger. Now it lulls us in, like a quiet hypnosis. We have to work to live awake, not to lose ourselves or our joy at living!