All the Knowledge in the World
At a dinner party, [The Scottish playwright George Bernard] Shaw sat next to a young man who proved to be a bore of historic proportions. After suffering through a seemingly interminable monologue, Shaw cut in to observe that between the two of them, they knew everything there was to know in the world. “How is that?” asked the young man. “Well,” said Shaw, “you seem to know everything except that you’re a bore. And I know that!”
“Do it Again”
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Co., 1909), 109.
In his novel, The Pale King, David Foster Wallace discusses the issue of boredom, or, as he puts it, dullness:
. . . Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like “deadly dull”or “excruciatingly dull” come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention.
Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly. . . . But surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUV’s backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called “information society” is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2011), 85.
A History of “Boredom”
Teenagers whine about it constantly. Office mates step out multiple times a day to Starbucks to escape it. Parents die of it every night as they try to get small children to fall asleep. We use the word “boring” so often these days, it’s hard to believe it appeared for the first time relatively recently, in 1853, in the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House.
While some historians believe the term “boredom” emerged as a response to the Industrial Revolution (when people in the Western world, who were becoming less religious, had more free time—including more time to feel, yes, bored), it’s only common sense to presume that the feeling has existed since the dawn of man. (Well, maybe cavemen who lived in fear of everything didn’t get bored.) As one of my listeners, Deacon Michael G. Hackett of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana, told me, boredom “has been around since the desert fathers, who lived as hermits, and were very often bored in their caves.”
Manoush Zomorodi, Bored and Brilliant, St. Martin’s Press.
Modern man is “a bleak business…To our chagrin we discover that the declaration of autonomy has issued not in a race of free, masterly men, but rather in a race that can be described by its poets and dramatists only as bored, vexed, frantic, embittered, and sniffling.
Tom Howard, Chance or Dance, Harold Shaw Publishers.
In her excellent book Liturgy of the Ordinary, pastor and author Tish Harrison Warren describes an encoutner her husband experienced while working on his PhD.
While my husband, Jonathan, was getting his PhD, he got to know a former Jesuit priest turned married professor—a holy man, a provocateur, and a favorite among his students. Once a student met with him to complain about having to read Augustine’s Confessions. “It’s boring,” the student whined. “No, it’s not boring,” the professor responded. “You’re boring.”
What Jonathan’s professor meant is that when we gaze at the richness of the gospel and the church and find them dull and uninteresting, it’s actually we who have been hollowed out. We have lost our capacity to see wonders where true wonders lie. We must be formed as people who are capable of appreciating goodness, truth, and beauty.
The kind of spiritual life and disciplines needed to sustain the Christian life are quiet, repetitive, and ordinary. I often want to skip the boring, daily stuff to get to the thrill of an edgy faith. But it’s in the dailiness of the Christian faith—the making the bed, the doing the dishes, the praying for our enemies, the reading the Bible, the quiet, the small—that God’s transformation takes root and grows.
Taken Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Warren. Copyright (c) 2016 by Tish Harrison Warren, pp.35-36. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Rather be Shocked than Alone with their Thoughts
In a study conducted by Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, researchers discovered what most of us already know: people do not like to be left alone with their own thoughts. Performed on collegiate freshman, initial results indicated 50% of study participants disliked the experience.
The study became more interesting in a follow-up study, “For 15 minutes, the team left participants alone in a lab room in which they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think, the team reports online today in Science…
We went into this thinking it wouldn’t be that hard for people to entertain themselves,” Wilson says. “We have this huge brain and it’s stuffed full of pleasant memories, and we have the ability to construct fantasies and stories. We really thought this [thinking time] was something people would like.”
He suggests that the results may be mixed signs of boredom and the trouble that we have controlling our thoughts. “I think [our] mind is built to engage in the world,” he says. “So when we don’t give it anything to focus on, it’s kind of hard to know what to do.”
Adapted by Stuart Strachan Jr., quotes from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/people-would-rather-be-electrically-shocked-left-alone-their-thoughts
Recording Your Prayers?
When prayer consists of the same spoken sentences on every occasion, naturally we wonder at the value of the practice. If our prayers bore us, do they also bore God? Does God really need to hear me say these things again? We can begin to feel like a little girl I heard about. Her parents had taught her the classic bedtime prayer for children that begins, “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
One night she thought, “Why does God need to hear me say this again?” So she decided to record herself saying the prayer, and then she played the recording each night when she went to bed. Perhaps you smile at her story, but you have prayer recordings in your head; they’re just a little longer or more sophisticated. Recorded in your memory are prayers—your own or the prayers of others—you can repeat mindlessly.
The Uniqueness of Conversation (And why Technology Can’t Replace In-Person Communication)
In an interview with MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, Megan Garber asks what makes in-person conversation unique, compared to all the other ways we communicate these days:
Conversations, as they tend to play out in person, are messy—full of pauses and interruptions and topic changes and assorted awkwardness. But the messiness is what allows for true exchange. It gives participants the time—and, just as important, the permission—to think and react and glean insights. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow.
You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”
Occasional dullness, in other words, is to be not only expected, but celebrated. Some of the best parts of conversation are, as Turkle puts it, “the boring bits.”
In software terms, they’re features rather than bugs. The logic of conversation as it plays out across the Internet, however—the into-the-ether observations and the never-ending feeds and the many, many selfies—is fundamentally different, favoring showmanship over exchange, flows over ebbs. The Internet is always on. And it’s always judging you, watching you, goading you. “That’s not conversation,” Turkle says.
A Wandering Mind
In a 2010 study called “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind” (gulp), Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert developed an iPhone app to survey the thoughts, feelings, and actions of five thousand people at any given time throughout a day.
(When a chime went off randomly on the participant’s smartphone, up popped a series of questions that touched on what the person was doing, if he was thinking about what he was doing, and how happy he was, among other things.) From the results of the survey, Killingsworth and Gilbert found that “people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is” and “doing so typically makes them unhappy.”
Manoush Zomorodi, Bored and Brilliant, St. Martin’s Press.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Boredom. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!