Caveat: Normally, for this blog, I’m going to refrain from discussing politics, but considering what just happened this November, I can’t resist using the election as a springing off point to talk about something bigger, something far more influential to our well-being than whomever the president is, something spiritually corrosive and downright deadly, but also galvanizing and, in many ways, good. So, without further delay, let’s talk about boredom…
We did it, everybody! We changed things up! It was another “let’s kick the bums out” election, which was a direct rebuttal to the last “let’s kick the bums out” election in 2008, which was, itself, a response to the “let’s kick the bums out” election of 2000, which was, well, you’ll never guess… it goes on like this, seemingly as far back as democracy’s creation.
What strikes me about “shake up” elections is that, historically, it doesn’t seem to matter if things are going terribly for voters or if things are going well, generally speaking. For better or for worse, people just want something different.
And, boy, do I want to judge them for that, to wag my finger and say, “How could you be so stupid to hand the whole system over to a total loose cannon?” But then I think about all those times I’ve found myself in a volatile relationship because I picked a partner who promised to free me from the doldrums of my status-quo life, a partner who excited me not because they were the best long-term bet for my own stability, but precisely because they were not. They were bad for my health, my savings account, my sanity. But they were thrilling. They were unpredictable. They shook things up.
When we choose the unstable route, the riskier route, the far-more-likely-to-knock-our-lives-off-balance route, we’re bowing to a deep-down craving that calls out from our souls, a voice that tells us, “Even if this turns out to be a total disaster, at least it won’t be boring.”
Boredom. Here we are. Boredom, the great dragon that demands to be slayed, again and again and again and again. Boredom, the enemy of stability, the killer of comfort, the devil on your shoulder persuading you to raw-dog it.
Alan Watts, expert on Eastern philosophy, referred to boredom as not just any problem, but as the problem. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about how relentlessly boredom gets us into trouble.
Aside from Trump and volatile relationships, here’s another example: despite what all the anti-tobacco commercials say, smoking cigarettes is, to most young people, sexy. It projects a kind of recklessness, a willingness to taunt death. It advertises a person who doesn’t play it safe, who breaks the rules, and these devil-may-care attributes are attractive because “safe” and “scrupulous” are synonymous with boring.
Sure, as we get older, our judicious concerns regarding the dangers of smoking may outweigh its inherent sexiness, but we aren’t then suddenly free of the siren call of danger. We still find ourselves victim to an ever-present need to escape dullness. Even when we’re safe and we know we’re safe, we fabricate ways to feel like we’re under siege. “What was that?” we ask our friend or spouse late at night. “I heard a noise outside.” Our minds thrust us from a safe, secure environment into a suspense thriller, and voila! No more boredom.
Or maybe we turn on a movie or TV show where, from the safety of our own home, we can live vicariously the arc of someone experiencing great risk. We never watch a film and think, “Well, I hope nothing bad happens to these characters.” No. We want them to suffer hard. We want them to endure a gauntlet of peril, pain and uncertainty. It’s no coincidence that the hero is often someone who, at the beginning of the story, was living a life not unlike our own. They’re doing fine. They’re safe. But then here come the invading aliens. Here comes Darth Vader. Here comes the meteor. Here comes the plague. Here come monsters, ghouls, zombies, ghosts, dinosaurs, demons, murderers, spies, Nazis, devils. Here comes death. Here comes an enemy.
Here comes Donald Trump.
Here comes the great disrupter who will save us from the vilest villain of all: status quo.
“Routine, repetition, tedium, monotony, ephemeracy, inconsequence, abstraction, disorder, boredom, angst, ennui—these are the true hero’s enemies,” writes David Foster Wallace in his uncompleted work, The Pale King. “The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.”
But nobody ever really teaches you how to be unborable. Few authorities tell you to willfully practice sitting with dullness. We aren’t encouraged to just be with it, let its existential ache soak in. Traditionally, instructors don’t teach meditation in school (though now some have started to, to positive benefits). They tell you how to be successful, how to be safe, but they neglect to educate you on how to deal with success, how to live with safety. How to be comfortable. How to be bored.
Studies suggest “the brain’s reward mechanisms are designed to give us squirts of dopamine not when we get what we want, but when we pursue it,” says psychology writer Oliver Burkeman. “We’re chemically rewarded for maintaining a state of unfulfillment.” This relates to the idea of hedonic adaptation. No matter how successful our lives are, our expectations adjust to the new normal, and our relative happiness doesn’t sway. Antsyness ensues. Boredom returns. Our coveted spare time turns on us.
In these moments, we tend to allow ourselves to get easily angered. We allow ourselves to be afraid. We allow ourselves to hate. We allow ourselves to believe the worst of other people, to trust fake news stories about how some particular group or some particular policy threatens to rob us of our safe, secure lives. We often eagerly feed our basest instincts and our fieriest emotions, and we do so because the one thing we can’t be when we’re upset, is bored (boredom, in fact, seems to be the only negative emotion that doesn’t double as an efficient form of entertainment). We clamor to feel anything, anything other than boredom, even it if means deliberately or subconsciously sabotaging our own lives, not to mention the lives of others, by thrusting ourselves into the suffering realms of danger, fear, and uncertainty.
But I have to be careful here to not trade one extreme for another. The behavior described above, in moderation, has its benefits.
There’s a word for being so caught up in danger and uncertainty that you find yourself light years from being bored: adventure. Adventure, by definition, is hazardous, risky, unfamiliar, downright life-threatening, and wrought with problems. Yet we still consider it a positive.
Here’s the contradiction. The very things we’re trying to achieve in life (security, stability, safety) are the very things that, once we have them, we wish to escape, subconsciously or not, and that, to an extent, is OK.
The need for adventure, the secret craving for uncertainty, is what gets us off our asses. It’s what gets you to take that job in another state. It’s what encourages you to do the things that scare you. It’s what jolts you from your comfort zone so you can face new challenges, learn to adapt, and grow. Even when your life takes a disastrous turn, as long as you’re able to endure it and make it through intact, there’s a decent chance you’ll emerge on the other side a stronger, wiser person. Too much safety and security can stunt our growth and mark the end of a romantic life.
Ray Bradbury says it better: “If we listened to our intellect we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go in business because we’d be cynical: ‘It’s gonna go wrong.’ Or ‘She’s going to hurt me.’ Or, ‘I’ve had a couple of bad love affairs, so therefore . . .’ Well, that’s nonsense. You’re going to miss life. You’ve got to jump off the cliff all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
This is inspirational, and it’s not wrong, but there are dangers in giving too much weight to such a romantic sentiment. It’s only half the story.
Excitement, adventure, danger, and passion can’t exist without their corresponding dullness, routine, safety, and boredom. A life of relentless adventure becomes a drag. It requires a bottomless well of resourcefulness and energy.
Ideally, our worlds rise and fall on a natural cycle: too much status quo stirs cravings for change, too much change stirs cravings for status quo. When you’re hungry, you grab dinner. When you’re full, you stop eating. As long as we’re aware we’re on that cycle, we can appreciate each phase as it comes, and not freak out when one crashes into the next, or be too eager to rush the process or cling to one half of it to the neglect of the other (to gorge ourselves, or to starve).
That’s the risk when the romantic, passionate life is held up as the ideal, as if that kind of life can exist independently from everything else, as if it doesn’t grow out of and recede back into the mundane life, and vice versa. We’re told from a young age to chase our dreams, to follow our hearts, to live with passion. To jump off the cliff and build our wings as we fall. Few crowd-pleaser films end with the main character making the unexciting choice. The mundane life is presented as kind of an enemy of true living. Living a mundane life is what your parents do. It’s what your stodgy teachers do. It’s not what rock stars do.
So we reach for the stars, and maybe we achieve our dreams, make loads of money and before long we’re living a secure, safe life—precisely the thing we were running away from. The passion starts to fade and boredom sets in. If we don’t have a tolerance for it, or if we haven’t practiced being bored, if we haven’t teased out and savored the nuanced and delicate pleasures of the uneventful life, we may find ourselves hurting from a sense that we’re not truly living, that we’ve somehow given up. We may quietly endure this ache, or we may refuse to suffer it at all and sabotage the uneventful life as soon as we’ve established it: with an affair, with buying a new home we can’t afford, with an addiction, with how we vote, with whatever it may be. We throw ourselves off the cliff before we even had a chance to appreciate the view.
In these moments, it’s important to remember that we all suffer each others’ choices. I realized a few years back that the knee-jerk actions I take to quell boredom can hurt those around me as much (or more) as they hurt me. My anger. My fear. My lack of patience. My drinking. My looking down at my phone in the middle of a conversation. My short attention span. My self-sabotage. We may think it’s our God-given right to jump off the cliff whenever we damn well please, but the people we drag with us, our families, our friends, our neighbors, and those more vulnerable than we are, often don’t have a say. A willingness to be bored, to practice being bored, to accept it, to not react to it in any kind of impulsive way, that’s a gift to others as much as it is to ourselves.
So where does this leave us?
On the one hand, if people were totally fine with the status quo, if they too easily settled into comfortable, safe lives without fuss or resistance, there would be no civilization. To be here, where I’m typing this now, meant that at some point my ancestors had to make the bold and terrifying leap of faith, uprooting themselves, leaving their homes in established coastal cities to pioneer out into the unknown northern wilderness.
But, on the other hand, at some point those pioneers had to stop and say, “That’s far enough.” They had to settle or there would be no, well, settlements, no new cities, no new homes, no new communities, cultures or ideas.
Ultimately, the status quo must be both resisted and accepted for progress to be made. I guess this is what Buddhists are talking about when they mention “the middle way.”
If there’s an imbalance, I don’t know exactly what to do about it other than try to find that balance in my own life, to be OK with dullness, to not react to it impulsively, to discover the beauty and richness in the uneventful moments, but then, at the same time, make choices that scare me, to sometimes make mistakes, get out of my comfort zone and shake things up—in other words, to live a stable, somewhat boring life spiced occasionally with the consequences of adventure.