Tuesday, January 4, 2011

An Enthusiasm for Boredom

A Wall Street Journal article online caught my eye: "Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation." I knew this had to come from England, where witty people typically look at unlikely, even dull, topics from wacky angles.

Participants in the London conference, "Boring 2010," gave talks on such mind-numbing topics as the 415 colors listed in a paint catalog, electrical plugs, paper clips, garage roofs, gum flavors and, of course, cereal boxes.

But there was a note of seriousness amid the silliness: several experts noted the relation between boredom and emotional illness, boredom being a risk factor for depression. "Some people can be bored to death," an expert quoted in the article says.

The relation between depression and acedia, or what medieval monks used to call the noonday devil, is explored, with mixed results, by Kathleen Norris in her personal memoir of her marriage and her life as a writer, "Acedia and Me." Acedia is often defined as sloth but she sees it as a kind of despair, a soul-wearying indifference, and she tries to distinguish it from depression. Norris finds social implications for her analysis in society, with many people feeling powerless to make changes in the face of the world's overwhelming problems.

I am reminded of an earlier study that saw boredom as the fear of running out of things to do: that made sense to me. Many people probably share what I experienced during more than one long hot summer in Florida, a sense of endless dullness with nothing to look forward to: a mild depression. The more intelligent and creative we are, the more likely we are to become easily bored. After all, people generally tend to be restless creatures, as Augustine said 1500 years ago, long before the culture was filled with the overstimulating diversions available today.

Yet I am rarely really bored: I enjoy my own company and made sure that my retirement would be filled with interesting new things to learn and do. This has often required effort on my part, but I staved off the fear of running out of things to do. Logically, of course, I know that I cannot run out of music to hear or books to read or movies to see or people to talk with, and yet....Fear is powerful. Retirement can be a challenge.

"When we learn to tolerate boredom, we find out who we really are," says Naomi Alderman, an author cited in the WSJ article. This would bring me, along with Norris, to the monastic tradition, to the contemplative life, including that of the writer, whose time spent alone can easily become emotionally difficult in complex ways that transcend the usual ideas of boredom.

I conclude that boredom is much more fascinating an idea, and more important, than the whimsical London conference that prompted the article.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Amazing you would write on this topic today. I was thinking of this very subject today. Thanks for the tip on Acedia and Me. I've read Cloister Walk, heard of Dakota but haven't read it, but never heard of Acedia. Seminole County Library doesn't have it but I ordered Dakota because I've always wanted to read it but forgot about it. Thanks.