A few lines from the poem, Bored, by Margaret Atwood:
Sometimes he would whistle, sometimes
I would. The boring rhythm of doing
things over and over, carrying
the wood, drying
the dishes. Such minutiae. It’s what
the animals spend most of their time at,
ferrying the sand, grain by grain, from their tunnels,
shuffling the leaves in their burrows.
Big question: What I am doing here?
I used to proudly declare that, “I’ve never been bored.” It was a statement delivered with much the same self-serving gusto one hears when over-achieving middle-class poseurs declare, “We don’t own an TV” or “I only watch PBS.” It makes my eyes roll and my gut contract. “I’ve never been bored” now has the same effect on me. Agghh, what pretentiousness! (I also used to pontificate, in a similar vein, that boredom, like guilt, was a manufactured emotion.) I now understand that boredom is the foundation of everything. It is the pearl-constructing grit in the oyster’s shell, the red phosphorous that makes the match explode. Avoiding boredom is the motivation of modern life. I say modern life because I’m not sure this–boredom–has always been the case. The word boredom didn’t even appear in the language until 1852, when it showed up six times in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House. Given that the English language has been around in a form we (might) recognize since Chaucer (c1340-1400), it strikes me as dead-on that this notion is rather recent, that boredom is a symptom of modern existence.
It’s not an original thought. Heidegger (1889-1976), as have others, spent a lot of time on the subject. “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference,” he wrote. “This boredom reveals being as a whole.” I don’t want to get up on a soap box, nor do I wish to write a thesis on the existential significance of boredom on modern life. That would be boring, would it not? And that is precisely the point.* Let’s not do something that is boring. To the opening question: What am I doing here? I now have an answer: I’m trying to out-sprint boredom. Does my life have meaning? I submit: Only to the degree I can appreciate Heidegger’s “remarkable indifference.”
Boredom is, paradoxically, the disease and the antidote. We might be challenged by the thought that nothing remains that is new, a thought which prompts (some of) us to attempt the new. I have long held that creativity is key to the profound in existence. What I never really appreciated is that creativity is, to one degree, the response, should one be inclined to respond, to the threat of remarkable indifference. Creativity is the fear of the same styled into the unsame. What am I doing here?–both the practical and the highfalutin metaphysical answer is: wrestling against the threat of boredom–with my notion of creativity. And you?
And of course there is a Ted Talk on the subject, as there appears to be a Ted Talk on every subject:
A long(er) version of this mini-essay appeared a few years ago over at The Nervous Breakdown. My essays at TNB can be found here. (Was boredom the motivation to lifting this essay…?)