Surviving the Sahara: On Being Bored

In his 1989 address to the graduating class of Dartmouth College the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky decided to forego the platitudes that comprise such ceremonies to instead admit that “a substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by boredom.” Aside from the incongruity of such advice at an event, it remains significant that a man who survived multiple arrests, an Arctic exile, and countless other Soviet affronts can reduce it all to “nothing in comparison to the psychological Sahara that starts in your bedroom.”[1]

The unique agony in the experience of boredom is perhaps our most common and yet least examined condition as a species.

Understood as the inability to perceive meaning in one’s life, boredom—or, ennui, tedium, apathy, accidie, etc.—is in fact one of the few experiences that separates us from the contented stupor of animals. As Georges Bernanos writes in the opening to Diary of a Country Priest: 

The world is eaten up by boredom. To perceive this needs a little preliminary thought: you can’t see it all at once. It is like dust. You go about and never notice, you breathe it in, you eat and drink it …  But stand still for an instant and there it is, coating your face and hands. To shake off this drizzle of ashes you must be forever on the go. And so people are always ‘on the go.’[2]

The ingenuity of our capacity to distract ourselves day-in and day-out (Buzzfeed, Facebook, Netflix) is a well trodden path that need not be revisited here; however, it remains unclear what this militant obsession of regimented distraction conveys regarding the theological significance of boredom (is there any?) and if that experience of “complete rest” requires an imaginative element for it to be endured.

Edgar Degas. L’Absinthe. 1876.
Courtesy of Wikipaintings.

Theological considerations of the question of boredom have been largely limited to its more medieval incarnation: acedia. Defined broadly as a self-directed turning away from God and the abandonment of spiritual determination, acedia, or “sloth,” is characterized by an active turning away from the goodness surrounding us through restless activity. Boredom, on the other hand, operates as a portal in which the goodness of all matter may again be glimpsed. But it comes at the cost of an introductory agony: “When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it,” Brodsky commends.

A theological formulation of such a feat may be found in St. Ignatius Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises advise that “we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things.” According to St. Ignatius it is this indifference that enables one to move past the empty consolations of diversion toward an understanding of one’s finitude in relation to the infinite.[3]

Boredom thus becomes the paradoxical opening in which the presence of the infinite passes through the insignificance of the finite.

Brodsky captures this imaginative interlacing of the transcendent within the immanent when he suggests “this is what accounts … for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck of dust aswirl in a sunbeam.” But if the endurance of boredom requires the imaginative capacity to situate one’s immanent environment within a transcendent framework, it follows that the true tedium of life comes in part from a failure of the imagination. Even in stillness, it seems, one can miss the “invasion” of matter by the immaterial.

This is the image we are given in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters wherein the diabolic agents seek to staunch the spark of imagination with rote mindlessness: “You can make him do nothing for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.”[4] Such imaginative torpor robs man not only of the joy of divine participation but mere material diversion as well. Only today the “dead fire” is simply the flickering screen of a computer, the drone of a speaker, or the empty exchange of information in conversation. In either case, one escapes the ash of boredom and thus fails to confront one’s true condition.

To achieve the delight waiting on the other side of boredom we must allow the ash of the mundane to settle upon ourselves. Only then will we perhaps discover the imaginative resources needed to survive our own Saharas.

 


This article was published originally on 3rd March 2014

[1] Brodsky, Joseph. “In Praise of Boredom,” in On Grief and Reason: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998, 104-113.
[2] Bernanos, Georges. Diary of a Country Priest. New York: Carroll & Graff, 2002, 2.
[3] Raposa, Michael L. Boredom and the Religious Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999, 65.
[4] Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996, 59-60.

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