How Insufferable! – a defence for boredom

Just to say the word is boring. We draw it out to borrrredomm and it falls like a rock down a well into nothingness. Other animals know it. I have dogs who have chewed the legs off tables when they have missed their walks. Boredom is a black hole. Think about it too much and we might bring it on and be sucked in. When life is interesting, it ceases to exist, but when the wind changes it creeps back and we are mind-numbingly, bone-crushingly at its mercy.

There is simple or situational boredom. It’s the stuff of long school days in hot classrooms, with a mocking sun outside. It’s an interminably long family dinner, over-cooked meat served with syrupy obligation. It’s the tedium of a long journey through an unlovely setting. It’s boredom at its purest because it’s finite. Change one aspect, either setting or cast or soundtrack and it’s gone.

What is the purpose of it, I wonder? I like to think it keeps us moving, seeking out the new. Peter Toohey says in his book, Boredom – A Lively History, it is an adaptive emotion in a Darwinian sense.

“If disgust protects humans from infection, boredom may protect them from ‘infectious’ social situations: those that are confined, predictable, too samey for one’s sanity.”

There, take that, Uncle Roger, with your rants over driver etiquette on a roundabout! Still, what is it about the ‘samey’? Surely, it’s safe in its predictable-ness? Perhaps, our search for the new is what helps us to adapt. Our relentless hunting down and assimilation of novelty, while not a solely homosapien compulsion, is one we can’t ignore. We see the moon and say, “Let’s take a closer look!”

Are we geared for boredom? It inspires a need for the new (new land, new ideas, new inventions, new vistas) which become quickly old as boredom descends again.  Toohey says, “The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.” Take Toohey’s tattoo example:

“Tattoos, outside of prison or the armed forces, were once a clear symbol of a nonconformist attitude, but everyone seems to have one now…..In my opinion, it would be more transgressive, less predictable and far less boring to have a tattoo above the left pectoral asserting ‘I love you, Mum’. Or better, your first name tattooed on your forehead. That would not be boring at all and it would be terribly useful at social gatherings.”

(You have to love a man who keeps his sense of humor in the face of it!) But truly, perhaps what drives us to seek is as much an avoidance of boredom, as it is the discovery of the new. There is much to fascinate, as long as we keep moving.

Children can admit to boredom.  They are potential to the brim.  As adults, we are loath to. We fear it might point to a lack of willpower or worse still, as Augie March puts it in Saul Bellow’s novel, The Adventures of Augie March, “You have shortcomings and aren’t what you should be?  Boredom is the conviction that you can’t change.  You begin to worry about loss of variety in your character and the uncomplimentary comparison with others in your mind, and this makes you feel your own tiresomeness.”

It’s interesting, isn’t it?  That the suspicion we are boring might contribute.  We are talking of another kind of boredom, though, a more dramatic, existential version, where the sameness of things appears to have infiltrated so deeply, personal meaning can’t be found.  Toohey says, “This alarming condition is often said to be the great characterizer of our age.” Toohey is speaking of modernity here, of course. The erosion of traditions and the secularisation of many societies, that sense of living alone among many. Bellow says in the guise of Augie March, “It is a also the shriek of unused capacities, the doom of serving no great end or design, or contributing to no master force.”

Existential boredom appears a different beast altogether to its more simple and situational cousin, but Toohey says otherwise.

“The actual nature of chronic (or existential) boredom suffered by these individuals doesn’t seem to be any different from transient boredom. It’s important to recognise this. The difference between chronic boredom and transient boredom is strictly one of duration.”

It’s almost disappointing, isn’t it? I was up for a stint on the sofa weighed down by a bout of ennui, melancholy, Jean Paul Satre-like nausea, but now, not so much. I wanted existential boredom to be glamourous, fashionable somehow.  I wanted to elevate it, so our suffering may be romantic.  How boring the existential variety is, when revealed as simple boredom out-staying it’s welcome.