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Boredom as educator

Yao Xin of Knoxville
Yao Xin of Knoxville


Boredom is interesting.

Paradoxically: it has something to teach you, if you’ll pay attention. Boredom can only arise when things are going extraordinarily well: your rent is paid, you’ve got food in your belly, you got a good night’s sleep, no one is hassling you—in other words: all your needs, for the moment, have been met. What are you left with?

Not bliss. Boredom. Boredom is a very subtle and helpful educator. What does it have to teach us? That no matter what we think we want, once we have it, we’ll soon grow tired of it, looking for the next “important” thing. Schopenhauer once said (somewhere or other: either in World as Will or Parerga) that human life oscillates between two extremes: suffering and boredom. The former characterizes the lives of the working class, the latter the bourgeoisie. When you aren’t in pain, you ask what’s the point.

Now wait a minute. You’re already objecting. You’ve been happy, you’ll say: exceptionally so. And so have I: for a minute or two, or a few hours, or even the better stretch of a day. Then what?—Boredom or suffering. Survey your life; see if I’m wrong. Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong. It’s an illusion I’d happily be divested of, were it an illusion.

It’s not. We’re sort of apt to fall for lies we tell ourselves. We trust ourselves; naturally enough: we have our best interests in mind. And it’s not that we’re stupid, necessarily; we just have a tendency to want to believe our wilder fantasies if they have a tendency toward our future pleasure: the wilder the pleasure, the wilder the fantasy can be—and still somehow psychologically plausible.

There’s no need to belabor the point. I’ve made it. But I wouldn’t have wasted your time if I didn’t think there was some use to be made of such “morbid” thinking. There is a use.

You’re going to go on exactly as you always have; you’ll continue on until you die: you’ll like pleasant, happy situations; you’ll enjoy tasty foods, comfortable evenings with loved ones; a whole host of things you’ve constantly fantasized about and will continue to do so.

The lesson that can be drawn from an analysis of boredom is a stoical one: when next you find yourself frustrated in your failed efforts; when you’ve come up short; when you’ve failed: remind yourself that infallibly—insofar as induction is “infallible” (see David Hume)—whatever it is, whatever it was: you would have become bored with it. The newest technologies are outdated before they’ve managed to accumulate a modicum of dust. Exciting careers turn into commonplace drudgeries, deadlines, and traffic jams. Beautiful lovers become middle-aged nags who ask passive-aggressive questions the rhetorical function of which is to demean you. Someone will key your car. Or you’ll decide yellow was a bad decision, anyway.

I find that when I think along these lines, I’m left with a sense of tranquility: which, of the various species of “happiness” on Earth—from the pleasant languor of lounging on a chair in the evening, drinking tea during twilight; to leg-cramping orgasms; to the sweet, sweet consolations of revenge on hated enemies—is the most stable. It’s yours for the longest stretches of time, is the most (I don’t say absolutely) unshakeable, and it tends not to come with its attendant hassles. At some point twilight becomes night, the mosquitos begin to bite, and the upstairs neighbor begins vacuuming: there goes your pleasant, languorous tea drinking. The orgasm could lead to genital warts. And the yellow car will eventually get bird shit on it. You get the idea. But peace and quiet is peace and quiet. And not chasing after things in your mind is a great way to attain it. Or, if you find yourself chasing them, remind yourself of their attendant hassles and dissatisfactions: you surely by now have a whole litany of items, accomplishments, and relationships that you previously thought would “complete” you. Did they?

Or do they bore you now?

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