Boredom: A fault within us

Photo: Matthew Henry, Unsplash Photo: Matthew Henry, Unsplash

In 2011, a book by a young writer, Bieke Vandekerckhove, won the Spiritual Book of the Year award in her native Belgium. Entitled “The Taste of Silence,” the book chronicles her struggles after being diagnosed at age 19 with ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition that always results in a massive debilitation of one’s body and almost always in death not long afterwards. Not an easy diagnosis for a vibrant young woman to accept.

After a deep initial depression, she found meaning in her life through meditation, silence, literature, art, poetry and, not least, through a relationship that eventually led to marriage. Her disease unexpectedly went into remission and she lived for another 20 years. Among the many rich insights she shares is her reflection on boredom.

Discussing the prevalence of boredom today, she highlights an irony, namely that boredom is increasing even as we are daily producing every kind of gadget to help us avoid it. Given that today we carry in our hands technological devices that link us to everything from the world news of the day to photos of our loved ones playing with their children, shouldn’t we be insulated against boredom?

Ironically, the opposite seems true. All those technological gadgets are not alleviating our boredom. We still wrestle with boredom because all the stimulation in the world doesn’t necessarily make for meaning. Meaning and happiness, Vandekerckhove suggests, do not consist so much in meeting interesting people and being exposed to interesting things; rather they consist in taking a deeper interest in people and things.

The word “interest” is derived from two Latin words, inter (inside) and esse (being), which, when combined, connote “being inside of something.” Things are interesting to us when we are interested enough in them to really get inside of them. And our interest isn’t necessarily predicated on how naturally stimulating something is in itself, though admittedly certain events and experiences can be so powerful as to literally conscript our interest.

That’s what explains our strong interest in major world events, championship sports matches and Academy Award celebrations as well as our less-than-healthy obsession with the private lives of our celebrities. Certain persons, things and events naturally interest us and we want to be on the “inside” of those lives and events.

We’re internally impoverished

But major world news stories, championship sporting events, the Academy Awards and the private lives of our celebrities are not our ordinary fare: our family dinner table, our workplace, our commute to work, our church service, our neighborhood bake sale, our daily routine, our daily bread. And it’s here where we tend to suffer boredom because it’s here that we tend to not be deeply inside the reality of the people and events with whom and with which we are interacting.

It’s here that we often feel life as flat, dull and routine. But, at the end of the day, we wrestle with boredom not because our families, workplaces, colleagues, neighbors, churches and friends aren’t interesting; we’re bored because we’re too internally impoverished, distracted or self-centered to take a genuine interest in them. “Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.” So says Aldous Huxley.

Vandekerckhove highlights yet another irony: We tend to wrestle with boredom and dullness when we are in the full bloom of our lives, healthy and working; whereas people like her, who have lost their health and are staring death in the face, often find the most ordinary experiences in life exhilarating.

Her insights bear a lot of resemblance to those of Rainer Maria Rilke in his “Letters to a Young Poet.” Like Vandekerckhove, he too suggests that boredom is a fault on our side, a disinterested eye.

In Rilke’s correspondence with an aspiring young poet, he takes up the young man’s complaint that he wasn’t exposed to the kind of experiences that spawn poetry because he lived in a small town where nothing exciting ever seemed to happen. He went on to confess that he envied Rilke who traveled extensively throughout Europe and met all kinds of interesting people.

For the aspiring young poet, Rilke’s poetic insights were very much predicated on the fact that he hung out in big cities, met interesting people and was stimulated in ways that a young man in a small town could never hope to approximate. Rilke’s reply to this young man has become a classic answer to the question of boredom: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.”

Finding life interesting isn’t dependent upon where you are and who you meet but rather on your own capacity to see deeply into things. Life everywhere is rich enough to be interesting; but we, on our part, have to be interested.

Father Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at info@ronrolheiser.com.

Website: www.ronrolheiser.com