Updated: Aug 6, 2022
Let your imagination wander for a moment. You have an evening free and there is nothing to do. I wonder what your first thought is. For many people it is a movie or a video (even two). Imagine, then, for a moment what it would be like if the power went out for weeks and you had no television, no computer, no videos, no DVDs, no CDs, no radio. How would we survive such a frightening famine of the entertainment that we have become so used to in our culture?
In one weekend the city in which I live, St. Louis, can offer baseball and football excitement (at the right rime of year), multiple concerts, movies in cinemas and on video, plays and art exhibits, and a plethora of TV channels to watch at home. How could anyone be bored in this culture of entertainment? It seems almost impossible. And yet, paradoxically, a recent annual study of the opinions of consumers revealed a boredom boom. This survey found that most people desired more novelty in their lives.
The Disease of Our Time
We are bored despite living in remarkable times. Just as a drug user develops a tolerance and needs larger doses to achieve the same effect, so we too have developed a tolerance to amazing events and perhaps, to entertainment. Reader's Digest highlighted this in an article called How To Cope With Boredom. It says, "Despite its extraordinary variety of diversions and resources its frenzy for spectacles and its feverish pursuit of entertainment, America is bored. The abundant efforts made in the United States to counter boredom have defeated themselves and boredom has become the disease of our time." i In Britain, a recent article in a major national newspaper reported the Archbishop of Wales saying, "We are a deeply and dangerously bored society and we are reluctant to look for the root of that. What has happened to us?" He asks, "Why are we so bored?" ii
Let's think about the basics of boredom. There are two main types: first there is the temporary type of boredom. This is provoked by things such as a long committee meeting, a boring task, talking to people who talk only about themselves, a long flight, driving across the country, a tedious sermon, or even a long lecture on boredom. The theme on these experiences is under-stimulation and repetition. Thankfully, for this type of boredom there is usually a remedy. You can leave a boring event. You could find another job, hopefully. You can find some temporary distraction to keep your mind occupied. This type of boredom will pass.
A longer term, more permanent boredom results when there is nothing to do that one likes. Webster's Dictionary relates boredom to malaise, close to the French word ennui, which means “to annoy." It is an experience of weariness and dissatisfaction issuing from inactivity or lack of interest. It is a heavy cloud which hangs over everything, or a murky lens through which each day is viewed. As one person wrote: '"My life was the same every day-getting up in the morning, going to work, doing work that I don't like, coming home, taking a shower, eating, going to bed..." There is an existential perception of life's futility, a deep level of lack of meaning and purpose.
In this second, deeper type of boredom there is a loss of passion for life and a lack of engagement in anything meaningful or satisfying. Yet with this type of boredom desire is not completely dead; a person still longs for something more, something that will not be satisfied by all the available opportunities.
Now some have likened the first type, the temporary type, to seasickness. It is uncomfortable while it lasts, but it is soon over when the cause is removed. The second type is more like a chronic, painful, and sometimes fatal disease.
A History Lesson
The word boredom did not come into the English language until the eighteenth century. Prior to that we cannot find record of a word with such a meaning. Patricia Spacks, in her book, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, demonstrates how references to boredom multiply astonishingly from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.
Dickens was probably the first to use it in Bleak House as Lady Deadlock endured the chronic malady of boredom. One of George Eliot’s female characters complains, “We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants: they’re often bored and that is the reason why some of them have gotten poisonous.” iii Approaching our own times, we find that contemporary novelists often focus on boredom. For example, Saul Bellow, in Humboldt's Gift, invents a first-person narrator planning to write a book about "Great Bores of the Modern World."
Contemporary rock songs reflect this same theme. The Buzzcocks have a song entitled "Boredom." The punk rock group, Meanwhile, has songs entitled "Boredom on Repeat" and "Life Is Hollow." Some music critics call this preoccupation with life's meaninglessness "angst and roll"iv music.
Why might there be such an increase in boredom since the eighteenth century? What has changed? I credit Patricia Spacks for starting me on a few themes which I have begun to explore a bit more.
Increase in Leisure Time
Since the mid-1800s, for many people, the number of leisure hours has increased and lifespan has increased enormously. People in the mid-1800s worked seventy hours a week and lived forty years; now in developed countries people can work forty hours a week and live seventy years, or more. One author calculates that this gives the average person about 33,000 more leisure hours than a person might have had in the mid-1800s.
Not only that, but the type of leisure activities that people engage in today have changed. Much time is spent alone in front of electronic entertainment. Previously it would often be spent with family: making music, telling stories, and with friends and with the local community. In conjunction with this, "alone time" has also risen as people have moved out of smaller rural communities to the industrialized cities. Anonymity is easily achieved in the big city versus the small town.
Now people come home, and rarely do they get together to make music or play games. No longer do we sit out on the porch (air conditioning has contributed to that too) and talk to neighbours; we go inside and shut the door and go to our private entertainment places.
Entertained to Excess
Boredom is easily recognized when there is nothing to do. But what about this idea that too much entertainment gives rise to boredom? Not only in our homes do we have entertainment and information thrown at us all the time, but almost everywhere we go something is trying to keep us entertained. Airlines show movies. Cars include radios, CD players, and now DVD players. And when I stopped at one gas station I was amazed to find a small video screen at each pump, just to make sure that I would not get bored for the few minutes it took to refuel!
When stimulation comes at you from every side, you reach a point where you cannot react with much depth to anything anymore. The boredom that we feel today is probably as likely, perhaps more likely, to come from overload than underload. When a person is surrounded by so much information and stimulation, he finds it difficult to sort out what is important, what is relevant, and what is meaningful.
Over-stimulation is felt most in relation to entertainment and advertising industries. Instead of making our own entertainment, we rely on radio, TV, movies, video games, surfing the web and so on. Now I am not saying these things are intrinsically bad. The problem comes when we come to depend on them too much. It is no longer necessary to put work into being entertained. Neil Gablar has written a book called Life: The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality. He shows how today everything has to be exciting to grab our attention. Entertainment becomes the primary measure of value. The media create expectations for us so that ordinary life becomes increasingly boring and we grow more dissatisfied. Like drug addicts, we want a bigger fix next time.
Additionally, to the contemporary mind, goodness and beauty often seem boring and unstimulating. They do not give the same adrenaline or testosterone rush that violence and sex do.
There is a huge and growing interest in extreme sports. In Outside Magazine, one professional sky- diver and skysurfer is quoted as saying, "It's only when my body is screaming towards earth that I feel most truly alive."v
Those of us who do not hunger for such extreme stimulation can still find plenty of entertainment in the endless shopping malls, restaurants, fitness clubs, bookstores, tennis clubs, golf courses, gambling casinos, porn shops, Strip clubs, movies theatres, [television].
Now, what does all this do to us? I would suggest to you that being surrounded and taking in all this entertainment stunts our imaginations and our creative capacities. And it shrivels our inner resources to make entertainment and to find entertainment in a good way. It is sort of like not using your muscles anymore; eventually you do not know how to use the muscles of the imagination. As the inner resources shrivel up, it is possible that you need more and more stimulation from the outside, the bigger and bigger fix, to get the same entertainment and sense of stimulation.
Advertised to Apathy
Not only is our society bombarded with countless entertainment options, we are met daily by messages from the advertising industry that are designed to make us dissatisfied and bored with what we have. I can address this phenomenon only briefly, but we must ask if some in our society have become so chronically disappointed by false advertising promises that they have shut down their deepest longings and desires and become apathetic and bored?
Could it be that the commercials, in fact, are more dangerous to the soul than the sex and violence that make parents so anxious? The commercials do not teach the critical virtues of self-control and delayed gratification. Could it be that the video and computer air that our children breathe leads to saturation with entertainment and disconnection from reality that eventually numbs and deadens the sensibilities of their souls?
Negated to Numbness
We have explored a little about being entertained to excess and being advertised to apathy. Now briefly I want to mention the fact that people can feel a sense of boredom for reasons other than the ones mentioned above. Clinical depression and grief both can leave a person feeling bored.
Additionally, those who have grown up in very dysfunctional families may have numbed their souls, expecting nothing out of life. Those are very real and different reasons for boredom that space does not permit me to address here.
Fragmentation of Faith
Finally, Patricia Spacks, reflecting on the apparent increase in boredom in the last three hundred years, believes that one of the possible reasons is the decline of orthodox Christianity. Spacks, who does not give any particular Christian interest in her book, says, “The history of commentary on boredom shows a steady decline in faith." vii The suggestion is that as Christian faith declines, boredom increases. The Christian view of life gave a motive to endure struggle and difficulty and boredom in life. Contentment was preached as an important virtue. Boredom was seen either as a sin, or as a sign of moral weakness or character failure. If there is no God out there to give you a sense of purpose and direction in life, how are you to find meaning and happiness? Spacks suggested that boredom is a metaphor for the postmodern condition. Behind the bright lights, optimism, and busyness of our culture lurks haunting questions that many want to ignore. The heavy questions of "What's the purpose of lifer' and "Why am I here on this planet?" tend to be conversation killers in most situations. Sports, sex, relationships, work, the latest soap opera, television show or movie are much more acceptable.
In the Bible, the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes described how he tried to find satisfaction in every possible form of activity: work, wealth, pleasure, gardens, many beautiful women. And instead he ended up with a sense of emptiness that is a lot like the description of boredom: "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired. I refused my heart no pleasure…Yet when I had surveyed all that my hands had done and what- I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Nothing was gained under the sun." (Ecc. 2:10,11)
Counteracting Boredom: Fast and Easy Steps to an Exciting, Never-bored-again Life!
Obviously there are things in life that are boring. Some tasks are inherently tedious in a fallen world, but how you approach them is crucial. Boredom can be a healthy stimulus to action and a challenge to use our creativity. But to face the most monotonous parts of life we must remember the big picture that gives meaning to the little things. It is important to think of the big picture when you are washing the dishes and wondering where tasks such as this fit in with the whole of life, marriage, having families, and so on.
We need to grow in delighting in the simple and the ordinary. This is where the busyness and dependence on constant entertainment prevents us from cultivating true wonder at the ordinary things of life. Mary Pipher writes, "Most real life is rather quiet and routine. Most pleasures are small pleasures: a hot shower, a sunset, a bowl of good soup, a good book. Television suggests that life is high drama, love and sex… Activities such as housework, fundraising, and teaching children to read are vastly underreported. Instead of ennobling our ordinary experiences, television suggests that they are not of sufficient interest to document." viii
It is so important to be active in our engagement with life, not just passive recipients. Developing childlike wonder at the caterpillar in the grass, the tree bud after the ice storm, the amazing colour and structure in the orchid flower- this is a capacity that we have to work at to keep alive. Developing these creative life skills make us far less dependent on the instant quick-fix entertainment of our culture.
Is God sitting back and feeling bored with his creation? From all that we read in the Scriptures it seems that He feels deeply and passionately about all that He has made. There is a rhythm and order to the creation, a repetition of grand themes in the cycles of nature. And G.K. Chesterton reflected very beautifully on the possible monotony of God's daily task. He says, '.Children 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 exalt in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exalt 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." ix
So the Bible tells us of a God who enjoys beauty and glory in what He has made, and wants us to do that too. And yet a God, also, who grieves over the ugliness of sin and the brokenness in His creation. He wants us to develop our gifts, but He also wants us to work hard, redemptively, against the evil and the brokenness of our culture and our world. We are to reflect the image of God and how He has made us, both in how we enjoy His creation, but also in how we fight against evil.
It was Edmund Burke who said, many years ago, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Resignation, apathy, and boredom invade when we feel hopeless and helpless. If we catch a glimpse of the bigger picture, where our story fits with His, then we are motivated to action. Engagement is not a comfortable path, but neither is it a boring interstate that bypasses life. The test of our spirituality is not in our best clothes, nor in our religious settings, but in our response to the everyday and the unavoidable. The test is in our ability to bring good out of hardship and joy out of the mundane. When we begin to grasp the real nature of the struggle of this life, the drama sharpens and the details take on extraordinary significance.
So why get up in the morning! Bilbo Baggins, a now wonderfully famous character created by J .R.R. Tolkien, could have stayed at home with his little comfortable house and his gardens. The Bagginses were, after all, very respectable. They never had any adventures or did anything unexpected. But when Gandalf came to call on that memorable day, Bilbo sensed that more was at stake. He was needed in the great battle between good and evil. He faced many dangers and challenges, but his life was certainly never so boring as it might have been if he had stayed at home. And my thesis is that we have all, to some degree, lost sight of that for which we have been made and have been seduced and brainwashed by the culture, and often sadly, by the church too. We can no longer see the drama of the bigger picture of life where so much is at stake. We are called to an adventure of living, which may have its profoundly boring and frustrating moments, but which gives meaning to life in which every situation has significance.
Ultimately, then, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to surf the channels, the web, the waves in order to satisfy our thirst for something more to relieve our boredom. Or we can choose to respond to the call to love and to serve God, who promises partly now and completely in the future to satisfy our pangs of hunger and quench our deepest thirst for meaning and significance. He is the One who gives us a reason to delight in His world and a passion for living. He helps us to endure patiently the inevitable moments of frustration and boredom. As we live in a relationship with Him, and in the light of what He has told us about the world, our perspective on the often difficult and boring things of life is little by little transformed.n
Adapted from "Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment" by Richard Winter, released in October 2002. Copyright (c) 2002 by Richard Winter: Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. wwwivpress.com
i Judson Goading, "How To Cope With Boredom," Reader's Digest, 108, no.51, (February 1976): 51-57, 51.
ii Rowan Williams, "You’re Bored…," The Sundry Times, March 31,2002
iii George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, 1876 (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 135.
iv Linda L. Caldwell, Nancy Darling, Laura L. Payne, and Bonnie Dowdy, "Why Are You Bored!" , Journal of leisure Research 31, no.2 (1999): 103-121, 119.
v Patrick DeGayardon quoted in Joe Sector Sport Watches, "Sector No Limits" Outside (December 1997): 69.
vii Patricia Spacks, Boredom: The Literarv History) of a State of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1995) p. 21.
viii Mary Pipher, The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families (New York: Ballantine Books, 1996), p. 90.
ix G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) , p. 66.