Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Why are people bored?

In reading a review of Lost in Transition by the sociologist of religion (at Notre Dame) Christian Smith, I encounter again the question faced by David Foster Wallace about the rootless, restless, disspirited nature of so many people's lives. The focus on Smith's book is on adolescent Americans, who are in crisis: they now remain students longer than in the past, just as they depend on their parents longer, and resist marriage as long as possible; they dread the world of work since it has changed: it offers little in the way of long-term stability.

As a result, these young people (by and large) have a certain amount of freedom--including freedom from commitments; and moral boundaries are less clear than in their parents' generation. They might agree that murder, rape, and robbery are wrong, but doubt that cheating on exams (or one one's partner) is always wrong. As I discovered among my own students, their main concern in cheating is whether they will be caught. As to the behavior of others, well, it is up to each person to decide for himself.

"Very few seem to think that right and wrong are rooted in anything outside personal experience," says the Spectator review of Smith's book.

They are into consumerism, drinking, and sex because of peer pressure, in part, but also because of sheer boredom. Why, with all the choices they have, all the opportunities for learning and enjoying life, would anyone be bored? Could it be that they have too many options, too many consumer goods, like the child who is flooded with toys on Christmas morning and turns with relief to playing hide-and-seek?

Might it be that boredom is, in my favorite definition, a fear of running out of things to do? If happiness consists only of entertaining activities, it is not hard for an imaginative, intelligent person to anticipate a life without the gratification of more stimulation. We are all essentially restless, in part because we do not find a place for contemplation, solitude, and silence.

Few people have articulated the importance of these three things as memorably as the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. I began today to look through my "Merton files," clippings of readings sent to me from the Merton Institute for Contemplative Living and other e-mail newsletters, and I find that the two ideas of solitude and silence recur in this extensive body of work more than any other; they are the keys to inner happiness and peace.

Both before and after becoming a monk, Merton, a restless soul, knew the dark side of boredom as a kind of depression. Yet he sought out what to many would seem like the least likely answer: a remote monastery. Once there, he sought out the solitude of his own hermitage in the woods. After being persistent, he was finally (c. 1965) allowed to move to a shed that became "a delight," as he writes in one of his journals: "I can imagine no other joy on earth than to have such a place and to be at peace in it, to live in silence, to think and write, to listen to the wind and all the voices of the wood, to prepare for my own death, to love my brothers and all people, to pray for the world and for peace and good sense among men."

As he wrote elsewhere, all of us need to seek peace within ourselves "because we do not naturally find rest even in our own being. We have to learn to commune with ourselves before with can communicate with other men and with God. A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him." (This is from
No Man is an Island, 1955.)

As Merton makes clear repeatedly, solitude is a true refuge from the depression and restlessness implied in boredom; it is not a negative relationship--the absence of people, any more than silence is the absence of sound. "True solitude is a partcipation in the true solitariness of God, Who is in all things....It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers."

There's much more: Solitude is not, says Merton, something to hope for in the future; "it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present, you will not find it." For Merton as writer, as for all writers, solitude is essential, and the writing does not isolate the one who writes but connects him or her to all the unseen readers he imagines, just as in silence he can feel connected to all those who are at a given moment being contemplative(fully present to the present moment) rather than busy.

Writing, prayer, contemplation, solitude--all of these involve a sense of creative aloneness in which one does not feel loneliness but a sense of connection with the self, with others, and with God. As the contemporary monk Peter-Damian Belisle says, "One is never alone in true solitude. There is the powerful experience of presence that arises out of solitude's depths."
Honest aloneness makes us not alone but awake to God's presence.

The same type of presence rises from the depths of silence, whenever we give ourselves permission to find the freedom that comes in silence. That is one of the paradoxes Merton loves to explore: We are truly free when we "encounter God in our hearts...the truth that makes us free is...the presence in us of a divine person." True religion is a liberating force that helps us find ourselves in God.

Is there a scriptural basis for any of this? St. Paul: "The Spirit pleads for us in our inmost being, beyond words, beyond thoughts, beyond images." The peace and even joy that can come from contemplation, says the mystical tradition of Christianity, is the antidote to boredom and restlessness which afflict our anxious age.

"There is not enough silence," T. S. Eliot wrote. To free ourselves from the noise of too many words, too many thoughts, too much stuff, we need solitude and silence, challenging though these can become.

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