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Is Boredom Driving Our Culture of Lunacy?

“Somebody’s boring me,” poet Dylan Thomas once commented. “I think it’s me,” he added.

Were you to become a fly on the wall, or in this age of electronic wonders, a tiny drone, you might observe my daily life and decide that I’m the most boring human on planet earth. I follow the same daily routine for the most part, even down to playing solitaire while eating yogurt for breakfast so as to avoid taking vitamins on an empty stomach. I write, read, write some more, fuss with the yard, take a nap (or two), wash the dishes, and occasionally deep-clean a part of the house. When I get a little stir-crazy, I drive to town, where I visit a coffee shop, shop at the grocery store, and drop in at the library a couple of times a week.

Like many people, however, the interior self is another matter altogether. I’m always searching for writing topics, and I entertain pleasant thoughts about my children, grandchildren, and friends, and not-so-pleasant thoughts about the state of our country. I won’t say I’m a bonfire of ideas, but there’s always a fire in the hearth.

In other words, Madame Ennui and I are at best passing acquaintances.

Until one day last week. And at the beach of all places.

It was the final day of my stay at the coast. For different reasons, the last of my kids and grandkids had departed for their homes ahead of schedule that Friday morning, but my room reservation ran until Saturday, so my friend John and I stayed one more day. The two-bedroom suite was spacious and accommodating, but after a day of hard, steady rain had confined us to these quarters, I was … bored.

Television wasn’t an option. Even if I was a viewer of the tube, I doubt whether I could have figured out how to operate that electronic cyclops in the den. So, I wrote, read a bit, and took a nap—I’ve read that dogs, unlike humans, take naps when bored, and decided to follow suit—but it was a long, dreary confinement. By bedtime, I’d cleaned out my backpack and carefully packed for the trip home, but those welcome diversions took less than 45 minutes.

At one point, I even looked up several online articles about boredom. One of these included a test determining whether one is suffering from transient or chronic boredom. I glanced at a few of the questions, but found myself too disinterested to answer more than the first three.

As I considered my inert self, a thought occurred: Is our culture so bored that we seek out new and exciting entertainments—girls becoming boys, men having babies, racism around every corner, Democrats in Congress spending hundreds of billions of dollars?

Are the members of Antifa fervent and educated ideologues, or are they burning cars, looting stores, and beating people in the street in order to escape another humdrum evening of playing Grand Theft Auto V? Did Attorney General Merrick Garland order the raid on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home to thwart his reelection hopes or did he just wake one morning bored out of his skull, wanting to whip up some excitement? Is Joe Biden cloistered from public view these days because of his dementia or because he’s just fed up with the whole presidential thing?

Long ago, before it was lumped into that catch-all sin of sloth, acedia was the eighth cardinal sin, dwelling alongside lust, avarice, and pride. Kelsey Kennedy provides an excellent sketch of this sin of spiritual apathy and its history in Atlas Obscura, writing that acedia, especially among monks, “made it difficult to be spiritual.” According to Kennedy, one monk fought acedia by “tying ropes to the ceiling of his cell, putting his arms through, and singing the psalms.” That sounds silly but effective, and left me wondering whether that same spiritual exercise might cure today’s immature radicals or those teenagers who, dripping with exhaustion from a day of video games, declare themselves bored. “Down to the basement and the ropes with you,” their mother might command, “and sing the National Anthem while hanging from the ceiling.”

Claiming to be bored as an adult should be embarrassing—even my brief stint with apathy recounted above is shameful. We live in a world of providential natural wonders and a manmade carnival of electronic amusements. Listless apathy, other than for a prisoner in solitary confinement, is unbecoming, and the fault, as Dylan Thomas noted, lies not in others, but in ourselves.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote French philosopher Blaise Pascal. After my long day of being confined to quarters, I think the old guy was onto something.

Image Credit: Flickr-Julie Edgley, CC BY-SA 2.0

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  • Avatar
    vipiwed
    September 2, 2022, 4:36 am

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    […] Is Boredom Driving Our Culture of Lunacy? — Intellectual Takeout […]

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  • Avatar
    Stephen Browne
    September 5, 2022, 11:29 pm

    I have seriously considered the hypothesis that significant numbers of people in the West are just bored of civilization.

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  • Avatar
    Kalikiano Kalei
    September 6, 2022, 1:41 am

    Your commentary resonates, Jeff. In my opinion, one of the primary reasons (or motivations, if you will) for this massive state of American domestic ennui is the enormous surfeit of creature comforts we surround ourselves with and consider ourselves (deceptively) to be ‘blessed’ with. Few social cultures in the extant history of humanity have enjoyed such a high level of creature comforts and sensory satiation as do Americans today, or a greater exemption from the most basic needs of humanity. We’re literally suffering from an extreme plethora of gratification of our fondest hearts’ desires, materially, socially and economically speaking
    .
    Part of the fault lies in our basic system itself, the perverse emphasis American materialism has put on sheer consumption as a placating, paramount goal of complete material satisfaction for people to strive for. More and more and more of everything conceivable, a quest which history and philosophy have amply shown to be an absolutely empty, hollow life goal, almost totally devoid of any greater inner spiritual meaning to strive for and aspire to.

    In Mark Bauerlein’s provocative but undeniably astute and recently released (2022) book titled ‘America’s Dumbest Generation Grows Up’, Bauerlein brings this up for our consideration as a partial explanatory hypothesis for the Millennials’ blanket dissatisfaction with the existing American status quo (as they, of course, see it). When we are so flush with material excess, so uniformly and unrelentingly bereft of truly serious, pressing issues involving basic threats to human lives and welfare, the natural tendency is to obsessively start drilling down deeper and deeper into the miasma until the nature of our complaints about the social, economic and political order’s status quo begin to transcend substance and morph into narrow, self-fixated, highly fantasised ideations. The result of the sort of whiny, cavil whimpering one would expect from spoiled, mollycoddled, privileged children.

    I have always felt that, given the many forms of this national self-inflicted angst, the very fact of our cultural success in achieving such a high level of creature comfort has paradoxically insolated us from deeper insights into the shallow nature of our unique system’s obsessions, with subtle but catastrophic results.

    Sadly, it is a well-known adage that ‘Nothing draws people together like a war (or similar major common cause) that threatens the entire nation”. Short of saying that perhaps we need some sort of immense, all-encompassing crisis along those lines to prise us loose from our morbid preoccupations with banal superficialities, one can’t help but wish that the Millennials had had some of the ‘benefits’ conferred by suffering on a massive scale that the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ underwent. Lacking any significant historical awareness whatsoever and possessing their fragile, highly immature state of cosseted, insulated existence, perhaps such excessively idealized states of being ‘progressively unhitched from reality’ are to be expected!

    Bauerlein goes on to say that he was profoundly struck by what he says appears to be the chief sophomorism manifest in our younger generation: that they suffer from the ‘delusion’ that ‘we should all be happy…shouldn’t we?’ This was first articulated by a young intern he was working with at his university and he quickly realised that it was a perfect summarization of one of the root-causes of the Millennials’ cultural ennui…and perhaps ours, too!

    He points out that ‘happiness’ is not a natural state of the human experience and that the 1969 Rolling Stones hit song, ‘You can’t always get what you want to…’, had it square on target, something that Millennials simply do not ‘get’. Therein, in both his opinion and mine lies a useful path to greater understanding of this national phenomenon you have briefly delved into here…

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  • Avatar
    Wesley Sulek
    September 6, 2022, 5:24 am

    In his book ‘The Heart of the Soul’, Gary Zukav states in the chapter on boredom, "Boredom is a flight from what is important. Like workaholism and perfectionism, it is a way of distracting yourself from inner experiences . . . diverting awareness from emotions by focusing it outward on activities [or lack thereof]."

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    • Avatar
      Sebastian Max@Wesley Sulek
      September 6, 2022, 7:53 am

      In the book, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’, Norton Juster describes how boredom affects the main character: "There once was a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always."

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