My Boring Life Is All That I Could Wish For
The intangible luxury that doesn’t deserve a bad rap
Three cheers for boredom. This “bestial and indefinable affliction,” as Dostoevsky put it, is an all-too-scarce commodity across the globe today.
In Bucha, Ukraine, a visceral Exhibit A, the hum-drum rhythm of middle-class life was literally shattered by Russian sniper fire and explosions. A woman was felled while working in her garden. A retired teacher shot in her doorway. A woman dead on her kitchen floor, a nearby table cluttered with the detritus of ordinary living — a bottle of booze, a jar of juice, tins of tea, crumpled plastic bags.
Weeks before their country was invaded, Ukrainians had the luxury of feeling bored. They could give in to “the sad and languid endurance of one’s leisure,” as Seneca said over two-thousand years ago in a mediation on states of boredom.
In Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mexico, and Yemen, the right to fall into a mope of boredom is nonexistent for thousands of civilians caught up in never-ending military conflicts and grinding poverty, where survival consumes every waking moment.
I would argue that the revocation of conditions where boredom is able to flourish belongs on a list of emotional war crimes against humanity.
Every human is entitled to access the widest range of emotions available to the psyche. Cultures may impose judgment on certain feelings, but pure emotion insists on itself, unimpeded. Of course, our right to feelings is not restricted to the pleasurable ones. Boredom is often downright uncomfortable; it may arouse feelings of deep inadequacy, as if we had failed to pass a test measuring our capacity for operating as fully functional humans. Also guilt, anomy, loneliness. Perhaps anxiety, as well — that nagging undercurrent of worry that the hour at hand is off-balance and life is slipping from our grasp.
The contemporary philosopher Lars Svendsen likens boredom to Freud’s notion of melancholy. Boredom, like melancholy, evokes deep, unpleasant feelings that nonetheless lack a specific object or focal point. Whereas grief, for instance, fixates on a specific (usually personal) loss, boredom is nauseatingly existential. It is “a blank label applied to everything that fails to grasp one’s interest,” Svendsen says.
Boredom can also evoke despair, revealing “the dullness of a soul that lies torpid amid abandoned hopes,” as Seneca wrote with such relevance. Or as a state that “comes for each of us in those moments when we can’t see a way forward…,” write James Danckert and John D. Eastwood in a recent book on the psychology of boredom.
It is supremely ironic that whereas war makes it nearly impossible for civilians under siege to experience boredom’s deadening quietude, the Covid era did the opposite by shoving boredom under a psychological microscope, enlarging every facet of the experience. We grew hyper-aware of how much, and how often, boredom destroyed equanimity and seemed, at times, to pin us down within the confines of our four walls and drain us, like an energy vampire, of the will to do.
Thus, over the last two years, millions were unable to “afford” boredom while millions of others had boredom shoved down their throats, like geese fattened for slaughter.
The haves and have-nots, with boredom as currency.
Given the bad rap boredom has earned through the ages, you’d think the war-torn would be better off without it (other things being equal, of course) and the Covid-weary would be desperate for less of it.
“I would rather die of passion than of boredom,” wrote the French novelist and journalist Émile Zola.
Boredom is nothing short of “time’s invasion of your world system,” declared poet Joseph Brodsky. The pronouncement verges on catastrophic, suggesting that boredom is a frightening force of disruption.
For Leo Tolstoy, boredom suggested an aching, empty absence, “the desire for desires.”
Despite the sense of emptiness and disequilibrium that shadows boredom, I choose to celebrate boredom, to savor and appreciate it as one might a luxury consumer good, such as an expensive pair of shoes, a vintage sports car, a rare bottle of wine, or front-row seats to a hit Broadway show.
Feeling bored is not simply one note on the human scale of emotions. It is an emblem of a certain type of privilege, for in order to experience boredom, you must have psychological time and “space” to reflect on your mental status, which in turn implies that you occupy a literal safe space safe, one devoid of physical threats.
If your village is being bombed, boredom is not in your emotional repertoire. If you are under Covid’s lock-down, boredom may feature prominently in proportion to how safe you feel financially and physically. The moment a loved one has trouble breathing and is rushed to the hospital, boredom has no place in your immediate future. If you cannot pay the rent or feed your kids, boredom isn’t what ails you.
Danger and boredom will not coexist in a sane mind. They are as oil and water, incapable of blending.
I do not believe that soldiers crouching in filthy foxholes for days at a stretch grow bored. They may experience tedium and soul-deadening hopelessness. But never full-on boredom.
Therefore, I count myself incredibly lucky that boredom, as a mood, is easily available to me. It is a menu option in a fancy restaurant. I can choose it or not. The point is, I can afford it, when so many others cannot.
Not only do I have the option of feeling bored, I also am privileged to lead a relatively boring life. If you sat next to me for days on end, watching me type away at the dining room table, eat many of the same foods and wear the same outfits over and over, barely speaking for hours on end, you might well end up bored to tears.
Isn’t that marvelous?
In an ideal world, all wars would end, peace would prevail, food and shelter would be plentiful, and every person on earth could settle into a nice, long bout of utterly unproductive, languorous boredom. Or not.