The Battle of Boredom
Is boredom necessarily a negative experience? Often we view boredom with a certain distaste or dread, which leads to the conclusion that it is not good to be bored. Yet, if probed more deeply, this distaste might reveal itself as fear, perhaps a fear of silence or the absence of entertainment.
Why do we fear silence and what about it do we fear? Since fears are often irrational, we must consider whether this is a sensible fear, and if so, whether it is worthwhile to act in obedience to this fear. I think the fear of silence is increasingly prevalent in a world dominated by noise. The more normal it becomes to live with this “noise” as our constant companion, the less likely we are to recognize the fear of silence as fear at all. It might instead be defined positively as a desire for stimulation or some more productive and efficient use of time.
Yet we are losing something inestimably important when we simply let silence slip out of the equation and repress the fear that forbids its existence. Silence can be connected to openness, to self, and to being. I want to discuss openness first. Silence necessarily involves space and time, space and time that are unfilled though they have the capacity to be filled. This can be looked at both negatively and positively, and for now, I am just going to speak about the former. Openness can be seen as negative because it is unpredictable. Something that is unfilled could become filled with anything, whether desired or undesired. Such a something also lacks a fixed structure or predetermined shape. This ties into our terror of the unknown. We constantly grasp after control- we want to be able to control and manage our lives and to do so with certainty. But silence necessarily requires that we relinquish some measure of control, that we are open to the moment that is itself open. Silence can surprise us; it can deviate from our desires.
Next, I mentioned self. In silence, we are alone with ourselves. It’s true that in a literal sense silence often takes place when we are not alone: we might even be in the midst of a crowd or talking to another person. Yet despite our external surroundings, silence still encourages us to turn inward. In silence, the absence of stimulation forces us to fall back upon our own internal resources rather than to look outside of ourselves for direction or occupation.
The last thing we have to touch on pertaining to silence is “being.” In a state of openness, we are not doing: we are being. Which of the two is more valuable? Both are necessary to a human life, but they belong in a particular order: to do anything, we need first to be.
We make a mistake in reversing this order and placing doing before being. Here we come to our second main point in the fear of boredom- a dissatisfaction with a lack of entertainment. This can be extended to a dissatisfaction with a lack of activity or business. We have developed an assumption that the meaning in our lives comes from doing more than being. If we accept this idea then when we are not doing, we are not valuable. This leads to a constant striving after goals, tasks and accomplishments. If we believe that this is what constitutes value then we will likely view boredom as something negative and as something which should immediately be filled.
If we panic during an experience of boredom, what are we likely to do? This question, in a sense, contains the answer: we will want to do something, anything. Thus we begin to act not because the act itself has value or is necessary or good, but because it is an act period. We act for the sake of acting and to avoid boredom and the experience of openness, with which we are unfamiliar and to which we do not know how to respond.
We have become accustomed to constant stimulation in a world that is heavily saturated with image and noise. This means that we have accepted that such stimulation and activity are natural, and conversely that boredom is unnatural, something contrary to human nature. As a result, the contemplative lifestyle falls under suspicion as an existence that is not good for a human being. But such suspicions stems from assumptions about what is good and natural for a human being, and these assumptions come from currents of thought in our contemporary culture, thoughts that have not always been.
So we have become accustomed to distrust boredom on the basis of the state of our society. What’s more, this same society makes it so that if we think boredom is bad, we do not have to endure it. We have all the necessary resources to dispel boredom, to make it a thing of the past. Is boredom unpleasant? Is boredom unnatural? Is boredom undesired? If we answer “yes” to any of these questions, then there are many alternative options to prevent such “unpleasantness” from happening.
Let’s imagine we are sitting in class and the professor is droning on and on, seemingly without end. Perhaps, in the past, we would simply have to endure the boredom, unless we decided to leave the room. Now, we can covertly whip out a cell phone, scroll through the latest social media happenings or respond to messages. Poof! The boredom disappears, instantly replaced with something stimulating, exciting, and pleasant. Similarly, if we become bored during a social function with friends, we can look at the same cell phone screen and redirect our boredom. We should never have to be bored if we don’t want to be.
I want to argue though that it can be good for humans to be bored, and that just because we don’t have to be bored doesn’t mean that good could not come out of a situation in which we let ourselves experience boredom. The problem with the above scenarios is that they take us down a slippery slope. We perceive boredom, judge it as bad and subsequently eradicate it from our spectrum of experiences. Pretty soon we start to anticipate boredom before it happens: why compel ourselves to actually feel any boredom at all when we can predict what will bore us and prevent the experience of boredom from infringing even in the slightest on our consciousness?
Is it really the worst thing in the world to be bored? To me, this question is almost inseparable from another related question: is it bad for a human being to experience unpleasantness, unhappiness, sadness, anger, hurt, negativity? If you are an Epicurean and think pleasure and pain are all that are needed to respectively define what is good, and what is bad, then you will answer “yes.” But I think that we have to allow ourselves to feel those undesirable feelings and experience those undesirable experiences in order to experience a happiness that is meaningful and unsuperficial.
Sometimes we are alone and experience boredom, but if we do not rush to label this experience as bad, then we can appreciate its good fruits. I said earlier that there is a positive side to openness and it is this: if something is unpredictable, it has the potential to produce something new, innovative and beautiful. We need openness to create authentically, and since we are all creative beings, we need to experience openness in order to be ourselves.
Sometimes we really are bored, perhaps in class or in a conversation or in any other situation. Yet we need to break down that automatic association between the perception of boredom and the need to eliminate boredom. What if we left it alone? What if we embraced and did not struggle against our boredom? What then?
Here, again, we find ourselves able to realize our potential, to reflect, to think in unscripted ways, to create, to exercise our imaginations, to surprise ourselves and to learn how these surprises can reveal the deepest parts of who we are. Do not crush your creativity or uniqueness because of a crippling fear of boredom. For this is what happens if we seek to eradicate the experience of boredom: we lose our ability to think and feel as individuals. In a certain sense, we lose ourselves.
So the next time you feel bored, recognize your boredom and consider accepting it and letting it be for a little while.
So you’re bored?
So be it. So be.