The spiritual side of 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 North America. Nothing much is going on.

My body clock is still set to city time, twitchily looking for the next fix of doing something exciting. But this tranquil environment resists any demand for perpetual activity. There are no distractions to stop me from dealing with me.

This is a good thing. “He who completely entrenches himself against boredom entrenches himself against himself,” said Nietzsche. Decompression is necessary, but more emotionally problematic than the simple idea that a holiday is all about fun, food and rest.

In the northern hemisphere, the holiday season of 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 nap. 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 fields.

As Arthur 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.

Yet, according to Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom, with the arrival of modernity, boredom comes to take on a particular and possibly darker inflection. Bored witless while writing his PhD about Kant, Svendsen came to see a connection between his subject and his state of mind.

For Kant, the self replaces God as the source of meaning. Then, as traditional structures of meaning are wiped away, boredom comes to be regarded as a personal failing. In order to avoid it, distractions are entertained: travel, drink, drugs, Xbox – all strategies of avoidance 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 than 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 the generation of meaning my own responsibility, they allow us to experience 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 middle-class parents who constantly fill their children’s lives with improving activities. It’s probably healthier just to let them be out in the garden, and to experience boredom, thus leading to their making up games or learning to talk to each other. Yet, 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 2013

Giles Fraser is priest-in-charge at St Mary’s Newington in London. He writes the column Loose Canon for the Guardian

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Giles Fraser
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