Hello boredom, my old friend.

We've developed a precise art to stay busy and 'hustle', stifling out all feelings of boredom. But are we really living?

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How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me.

Kiekegaard - Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

A friend described this week as, ‘utterly painful and tragically woeful’. Given the precarity of life in general, much less during a global pandemic, I was understandably concerned. His disappointment was palpable and there was deep sense of resignation in his eyes, the kind of hopelessness one feels when faced with a tricky situation; trapped in a cul-de-sac between a rock and a hard place.

I delicately asked what the problem was, fearing that I was, despite the best of intentions, ill-equipped to provide any comforting advice. Was it the complex matter of a broken heart? Or the financial stress of meeting the mortgage payments of his newly acquired apartment? Scratch that. Maybe his family’s general annoyance with his bachelor-like ways, a narrative that featured consistently in our conversations, had finally taken an emotional toll?

After a pregnant pause, he outlined the gravity of his predicament.

His favourite TV series on Netflix was cancelled mid-way into the 3rd season and the resultant boredom of not having anything engaging to watch was ‘killing him’.

There is an intensive self-reference in ‘being bored’. We’re bored of ourselves; we are tired of ourselves, of monotonous predictability. I find it curiously amusing that we are presumably less bored than our ancestors (given the slew of distractions available on tap) but yet more afraid of being bored. So much so that this fear of ‘boredom’ has been smartly leveraged and utilised as a corrective mechanism/punishment in detention centres, prisons and even in parenting. Sitting quietly with one’s self, without a specific objective or purpose, is perceived as anathema to most.

Boredom has an associated infantilism. Children feel bored. And yet the child’s boredom evokes in adults a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even allowed to exist in the first place — commonly alleviated today by sticking a digital device in the child’s hands. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as one of the many modes of being.

Perhaps our attitudes to boredom are really a by-product of our insatiable need for excitement and entertainment - an expectation and anticipation that something has to happen in any given moment.

As modernisation becomes more intensely rooted in the fabric of the everyday, so has our pursuit of excitement. In fact our obsession with being entertained has reached a point where we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitised to its effects. Nothing is ever enough to quench our thirst for distraction from the present moment.

Bertrand Russell tussled with the subject of boredom most elegantly in a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement” from his indispensable 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer”.

The main premise of the book was about teasing out explanations as to why we dread boredom as much as we do. Russell shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on our perilous and self-defeating pathologies in avoiding the present; pathologies that constantly have us seeking the next ‘big thing’.

With the same acute prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

“A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty…” 

I was particularly interested in Russell’s diagnosis of contemporary reality in the context of technology.

Our screen-hungry hands need a break from technology. We’ve lost our ability to enjoy monotony through invention and imagination; in other words, we’ve lost our ability to simply ‘play’. This in turn has affected our ability to think laterally about life, outside neatly governed boxes. The widely-used technological derivative, “there’s an app for that”, couldn’t be more reflective of how we’ve gradually relinquished living to the mighty algorithm. Our experience of reality is at the behest of a bunch of binary 1s and 0s.

We’ve developed such an intense hatred for existing independently from our technological-nannies that we’re forgoing all that is blatantly in front of us. This dread of boredom has become a self-inflicted wound resulting from our decision to sever all ties with nature. It is a common sight to see people in public spaces, transfixed by a glowing screen furiously scrolling through the seamless carousel of Tik-Tok videos, completely blind to the sky and deaf to the birds. In their zombie-like stupor, they trudge through life on semi-automated mode.

The thing is, we seem intent on justifying human action as a response to boredom: “I was feeling bored…so I did…”. Because ‘hustling’, in the broadest sense of the word, as somehow achieved a false equivalence to living a fulfilling life. Everyone needs a side-hustle these days. Don’t worry the irony is not lost on me. This newsletter is after all a type of side-hustle. But let us gloss over that for the moment.

More importantly, what solution is there to boredom, a state of mind and emotion that has outlived generations before us?

It is, at the risk on unearthing an old cliche, disarmingly simple but hard to practice. We should stop conceiving life as a series of tasks to be accomplished and instead see it as a series moments to be filled with living. Boredom comes from an inability to perceive the all-encompassing wonderment in our own environment. We must move beyond societally manufactured instructions on what ‘being entertained’ means and instead rely on nature to dictate that dance for us. And no, this isn’t some hippy proclamation.

We would be surprised at the rich creative experiences a simple innocent scan around a room, park, office can bring. These moments re-affirm our relationship to the present moment, because living doesn’t transcend time. It is rooted in immediacy. As much as we struggle to run away from the present, our efforts remain futile because the perimeters of our existence is defined by the sights, smells and tastes that preside in this current slated moment.

Boredom then is really a self-induced numbness to the stories of the present because of an unrelenting hope that something better awaits. The ‘soul-choking misery’ of boredom is in fact not an ailment to be addressed but a form of negotiation with a present reality without distraction.

It is time we reinstated an active and joyful engagement with the natural world and its changing seasons, not just in Netflix but in every waking moment.

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