Boredom seems like part of daily life, doesn’t it? Some of us are bored at work, some of us are bored when we get home. Some of us are bored with everything in our lives. According to Wikipedia’s article on the topic, Boredom is a problem of “engagement of attention.” This unfolds in three ways, “times when we are prevented from engaging in some wanted activity, when we are forced to engage in some unwanted activity, or when we are simply unable, for no apparent reason, to maintain engagement in any activity or spectacle.”
I want to take a more in-depth look at the last two reasons.
1. We are forced to engage in unwanted activity.
For many of us, this unwanted activity is the work we do every day from 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. In fact, the same Wikipedia article goes on to say, “Erich Fromm and other thinkers of critical theory speak of boredom as a common psychological response to industrial society, where people are required to engage in alienated labor.”
Alienated labor! This ties in directly with a book I just finished called Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford. Much of this book discusses the loss of meaningful work through the separation of thinking and doing. He offers some telling examples like when the first assembly lines were introduced in Ford’s factories and craftsmen walked off the job horrified and insulted. Ford had to temporarily double his wages to get anyone to work the lines. Crawford shows how much of our “knowledge economy” today has continued the pattern of reducing our work to systems and processes that try to remove the need for employees to think and instead just follow a procedure (think customer service call centers). Mastering a subject, topic or skill is not required. No wonder we’re bored.
Reclaiming Meaningful Work
Crawford’s solution is a return to manual trades and small enterprise. He writes, “I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.” This author holds a PhD in political philosophy, but prefers the intellectual and mechanical challenges of running a motorcycle repair shop to a job at a think-tank. He demonstrates in the book how this type of work engages his full attention. Curing our boredom involves doing things that engage our attention and developing the “virtue of attentiveness.”
Attentiveness is a discipline. Crawford writes that the mastery of meaningful work “is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra) . . . Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys.”
In his book Culture-Making: Recovering Our Creative Callings, Andy Crouch writes, “We cannot make culture without culture. And this means that creation begins with cultivation – taking care of the good things that culture has already handed on to us. . . . One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive.” Crouch also emphasizes the need for competence and mastery. If we are to cultivate and create culture, it requires learning the disciplines of the culture we are working in.
We need WHOLE work to engage our attention; work that requires thinking and doing, fixing and tending, cultivating and creating.
2. We are simply unable, for no apparent reason, to maintain engagement in any activity
While the first kind of boredom can be solved through finding more meaningful work, what if we can’t even raise our interest levels enough to find meaningful work in the first place? What if we’re so numb with boredom that nothing engages our attention? A great quote from Tolstoy captures this problem perfectly, “Boredom: the desire for desires.”
When people suffer from this kind of boredom, they try to drown it by consuming entertainment, anything to amuse and distract from the inability to engage. Our western society goes to great lengths to suppress boredom. Just think about how many different TV shows there are! Entertainment is big business, and we need lots of it because none of it really holds our attention the way meaningful work would.
Boredom like this can be paralyzing. We may feel anxious and hopeless. There’s a reason that boredom is a symptom of depression. Pascal wrote, “Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort. Then he feels his nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness.”
This is why we are so scared of being bored. Because, in the end boredom comes down to a lack of meaning. And in the absence of distraction, life’s tough questions trouble us. What am I doing here? Is there any meaning or purpose to my life? Curing boredom means finding an answer to these questions.
Finding Your Calling
In a great article called “The Burden of Boredom” (read the full article here) that inspired today’s blog post, Steve Leonard writes,
“Typical amusements become boring with time when they do not nurture an eternal purpose or feed what God has put in us: a hope for eternity. When in our work or play we cease to be engaged in eternally purposeful activity, or do not understand how and why what we do and think is eternally meaningful, hope is drowned in the boredom which is the result. Boredom is the absence of any confidence that what we do and think is significant for eternity.”
This is why a Caller is essential to relieving our boredom, answering our callings and doing meaningful work. To really accept the idea that we have a calling requires us to confront our beliefs about eternity, because, in the end, boredom is cured at its deepest level through understanding that God created us for an intimate and personal relationship with him, doing the meaningful work he designed us to do until the day that he calls us home.