Rock Island, IL

In a former treatise, O Theophilus—and one for which I was monstrously abused, I might add—I said that if you look around you in a movie theater you will see people who are bored out of their minds. I as much as suggested that an affliction perhaps best labeled Default Boredom Syndrome is the very reason people “go to the movies” or “rent a movie” or “Netflix something” in the first place. (The quotation marks there are meant to suggest an habituation to something at best dull and at worst sinister; I haven’t sunk to quoting myself just yet.)

I also mentioned Hank Devereaux, the hero of Richard Russo’s Straight Man, who says that, like everyone else, he just wants to be entertained, the difference being that Hank finds real life entertaining enough, whereas others need to purchase their entertainment. And I think I made it fairly clear—I hope I did—that I’m with Hank on this point.

(One reader attempting to set me straight parted with “the fourteen (count ’em, fourteen) different things Mr. Peters could do to educate himself and to spare the rest of us from any more of his manifest ignorance where film is concerned,” whereupon he listed fourteen directors whose movies I should watch. That is, he gave me one thing to do fourteen times. I don’t know whether his numerical confusion was brought on by too much movie-watching, but I do know that I’m not bored enough to take his advice.)

I’m not opening up old arguments. Rather, I’m trying to get myself and maybe a few others to think about boredom again.

Two articles were recently brought to my attention by a former student of mine (who happens to be the author of one of them), and they both touch to some degree on boredom. The first, “To Understand Boredom, Students Go Back to 1925,” appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education . It is about how the cast members performing Noel Coward’s Hay Fever give up their phones and computers for a week so that they can better “understand the mind-set” of Coward’s somewhat ‘dysfunctional’ Bliss family and get a better sense of why one of the Bliss weekends comes “to a decidedly unblissful end.”

The director of the play says that “part of the reason the family acts the way they do is because they were bored.” And “we aren’t bored anymore”—we who have so much to keep us occupied—so the cast, in an attempt to know Coward’s characters better, paid the past a little visit.

The director

tried to create boredom in the lives of the students by having them sign a contract that limited their interactions with the 21st century. She permitted the time travelers a few compromises—like letting them use their computers as typewriters—so that they could complete job-related tasks and homework. But Facebook was out, iPods were off, and ‘tweets’ were nature sounds heard on campus strolls.

(Daisy Buchanan, the professional socialite, belonged to the targeted era, the mid-1920s, and she was bored; my grandfathers, the dairy farmer and hardware man, also belonged to that era, and they weren’t. But for now I’ll set aside this contrast between the unoccupied rich and the occupied poor.)

The other article, “Tangled in an Endless Web of Distractions,” is … well, it’s about how college students can’t concentrate on their work because they’re always connected to everything but the Socratic dialogues or Metaphysical poetry or the initial force of sliding friction. And they’re not distracted only at night, when they’re supposed to be reading for class or revising essays or figuring out the relation between guanine and cytosine and thymine adenine. They’re distracted—rather, letting themselves be distracted—in class as well, which is making some professors and administrators think about unwiring all the “smart” classrooms (or making them unwireless).

Studies show that …

But, you know, what the hell. Who needs studies to show that in short order we’re going to be handing freedom and democracy over to people whose attention spans aren’t elastic enough to get them through bad definitions of “freedom” and “democracy”?

It turns out that students are recurring to “apps” (have I got the right word here?) that for a couple hours at a time will disallow them to access their distractions. Students activate these so that they will have no choice but to do two or three short hours of homework rather than visit their favorite websites or shop online or find out what Mackenzie and Reece did after the concert last night—and where they did it. (What’s to keep these scholars from going off in search of pick-up basketball or a kegger is unclear.)

The article ends with a section called “Help for the Hooked”:

Some apps that can help computer users limit the distractions of the Internet:

SelfControl: Blocks access on Mac computers to e-mail and websites such as Facebook or others of your choice for a set period of time of up to 24 hours. Once enabled, the app cannot be turned off. Katie Inman, an MIT student who recently downloaded this app to help her focus while studying, said some of her friends who use personal computers could use a similar app to block Internet distractions. “I don’t know of any Windows software that does the same thing,’’ she said, “but one of my friends was thinking of coding one.’’

Freedom: Disables all Internet access on a Mac for up to three hours, freeing users from the Web’s myriad distractions.

LeechBlock: Blocks certain sites, perpetually or during specific periods. Designed for Firefox Web browser.

(Of these, “LeechBlock” has at least the dignity of a good name. The others fail of irony altogether, which is obviously the unum necessarium.)

But before we are introduced to these examples of software-assisted asceticism (“software-assisted asceticism”: I rather like that one), we’re told of one student who

has developed a new routine to keep from succumbing to the lure of the Internet. Around 9:30 each evening as she settles down to study, she sets the self-control application on her laptop for two hours. She is blocked from Facebook, Twitter, and other websites she does not want to be tempted by.

And there is nothing she can do to disable it once it is set.

“It drove me crazy the other day in class. I turned on the self-control app so I could focus, but I was getting really bored,’’ [she] said. “So I fell asleep.’’

What are we to make of the use of boredom in these two articles? In one, the professor says that because of our electronic thingamajigs we aren’t bored anymore—unlike everyone who lived in 1925. In the other, the student admits as much: when she cuts herself off from the websites that “she does not want to be tempted by”—in class, mind you—she is bored and goes to sleep. The answer, I think, is this: the only way not to be bored is to be endlessly entertained.

Except it ought to be obvious by now that availing yourself of endless entertainment is the surest way to boredom.

A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday I felled a small wild cherry tree, sawed it up and split it. Not one minute of the work was dull. I didn’t wonder what the world was up to. When you open up cherry, all you want to do is smell it and look at it and open up more of it. I can’t say the same about what I did Monday to Friday, much of which involved managing—nay, fending off—electronic distractions. And I don’t even participate in “social media” or own one of those electronic things that you press against your ear and, for the low low price of brain cancer, talk incessantly into.

Say what you will about the benefits of all these things that we at first purchase and at last are owned by. But when we need an “app” for self-control, when we need a Self-Control Button, we’ve sunk pretty far. The future is grim, my friends.

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, where he teaches courses in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007) and Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling just enough writing projects to prevent his completing any of them: an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees. See books written and recommended by Jason Peters.

19 COMMENTS

  1. It will never cease to amaze me how good human beings are at manufacturing their own addictions. The classical liberal mantra that more education will solve the problem is in deep doo-doo. It rather seems a supreme irony that more of a certain kind of “scientific” education has created our rampant technological addictions and now these addictions undermine education itself.

  2. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Wasn’t it Plato that said boredom was a sin? Until just a few years ago my whole life was in pursuit of entertaining myself to death. Everyone permitted it because I was a pleasant man while intoxicated on distraction and because I could feign a reasonable level of scholastic or vocational productivity. The only thing I can say is have pity on the souls that have done this to themselves. The road to recovery is long and … well, boring (at least at first).

  3. At present I can’t recall who first said it–nor could I find it via an Internet search–but that doesn’t change the veracity: “The poison lies not in the substance, but in the dose”.

    While we may have many, many things to keep us “entertained” or “bored” or whathaveyou, there existence alone does not determine their (mis)use. While Facebook may be used to over-share inane and inconsequential details of individuals’ lives, it may also be used to share examples of insightful commentary and foster vigorous debate. While cell phones may allow one to prattle endlessly about next-to-nothing, they also allow him to reach assistance in the event of a roadside emergency.

    True, it may be difficult to lose weight while working at Baskin Robins, or stay “on the wagon” while tending bar. But that doesn’t make it impossible to resist those temptations, and it certainly doesn’t make rocky road or gin & tonic instrinically contemptable.

    I would submit a different theory for this new-found proliferation of “Default Bordedom Syndrome”: we’re all rich; thus, we’re all bored. The level of comfort in the United States is mind-blowing! I’m reminded of the the Prodigal Son, when he longs to be on his father’s estate, “where even the hired hands have more than enough to eat”. Think of how we set our “poverty level” at tens of thousands of dollars, and how roadside beggars can receive hot meals and warm cots on a nightly basis, courtesy of any number of charities.

    That isn’t to suggest that we don’t have problems, not the least of which is boredom. Rather, it’s to say the problem goes much deeper than “technology” or “entertainment”. Somehow we must find a way to embrace and appreciate God and man, to (re-)orient ourselves toward Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. I don’t have any Grand Ideas on how to do it (because there aren’t any!), but he central themes of this forum–faith, family, community, charity–are vital to the effort.

  4. A guy named Daniel Akst just wrote a book about “We have Met the Enemy: Self Control in an Age of Excess.” Here’s an article version:

    http://reason.com/blog/2011/04/18/new-at-reason-daniel-akst-on-s

    Akst points to at least one technological solution: To control your urge to, say, eat, you can log on to websites that allow you to “punish” yourself for failing to lose weight. The punishment could be monetary, or include a donation to a charity you dislike. Self-enforced moderation, of sorts.

    Kind of reminds me of these apps.

  5. @Barry,

    There is another rub here. That cell phone (so useful in emergencies) would be prohibitively expensive if it were only used for it’s healthy dose. One of the benefits, that is one way in which the wealth of America is such a shared gluttonous rampage, is that if there are enough people misusing something, then those with self-control can hang on to their coattails economically. Mass production has assured us of this.

    What then of our healthy dose, so inexpensively acquired, at the expense of those less equipped around us?

    I have no virtue yet in this area, I am merely sharing my new found awareness of my sin.

  6. John:

    Yes, one of Eliot’s most profound lines.

    David:

    I think the key is to properly enjoy moderation and its benefits and try not to stew too much about the system that provides them. Full abstention can be embraced, but only if it is life giving. I find stewing too much about systems incredibly enervating; this is ironic if the goal of reflection is to free one from the shackles of the unexamined life.

    This approach is actually incredibly ethical, at least according to Kant’s Categorical Imperative, because if everyone engaged in moderate consumption and zero addictions the overall political economy would fall into place. Economies are organic and would theoretically respond to mass virtue.

  7. @G. Koefoed,

    I appreciate your offering and will consider your words (after all, the general gist of such things has always been to mind your own sin and not the sin of others), but did you have to bring Kant into it?

    I suppose with most folks Kant would get you somewhere. Kant to me, necessarily leads to Hegel which is where myself and Kierkegaard make loud sounds of raspberries with great and messy spittle.

  8. Not addressing your point, but just pointing out that by the end of your post – “software-assissted asceticism” – you actually DO sink to quoting yourself 😉

  9. What if I am being distracted from my history essay by reading FPR???

    I love to say, “Things aren’t boring. People are.” Boring people are bored – or vice versa. I can’t decide.

  10. After I had been reading classic literature from 19th-century Russia for a while, I noticed that boredom figured in there quite often.

    “On both windowsills were also placed little piles of knocked-out pipe ash, arranged not without assiduousness in very handsome rows. It could be observed that this sometimes provided the host with a pastime.”

    – Gogol, Dead Souls

    “’The things one does out of sheer boredom in the provinces, the absurd, useless things! And all because what ought to be done never is done.’”

    – Chekhov, “The Man in a Case”

    “She would steal an hour or two’s nap, but awake from it once again to that peculiarly Russian boredom, the boredom which reigns inside the houses of merchants, and which, it is said, makes even the thought of hanging oneself seem a cheerful prospect.”

    – Leskov, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk”

    “…some stupid mongrels … sit on their hind legs with muzzle raised and eyes half-shut barking at the stars out of sheer boredom.”

    – Turgenev, “Mumu”

    “’Tell me, how do you manage not to feel bored? It cheers me to look at you. You are full of life, but I am bored.’

    “’You bored? Why, yours is the gayest set in Petersburg,’ said Anna.

    “’It may be that those who are not in our set are still more bored, but we – I at any rate – do not feel merry, but terribly, terribly bored.’

    … “’Bored!’ said Betsy. Sappho said that they had a very jolly time at your house yesterday.’

    “’Oh dear! It was so dull!’ said Lisa Merkalova. ‘We went back to my place after the races. Always the same people, the very same! Always the same goings on, the very same! We spent the whole evening lolling about on sofas. What was there jolly about it? Do tell me how you manage not to get bored?’ said she again to Anna.”

    – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

  11. PS So think about what happened in “boring” Russia after the period from which those quotations come.

    Do people turn to violence out of boredom as well as other promptings?

  12. I get bored watching a movie or reading, but I think it’s because my standards are higher. I no longer have the patience to watch a bad movie and because I have gotten it free from the library instead of paying $6 at a theater, I don’t feel so bad turning it off. Same thing with books: I used to buy my books (how dumb was that?) but now get them from the library. If it doesn’t capture me in the first 30 pages, I’m done. I have too many other things to do with my time than commit to substandard entertainment.

  13. I am presently a college freshman, and am very much a member of the “digital generation.” I can remember a time without a computer or the Internet, but they are very early memories. I cannot speak for everyone my age, but I believe I am not far from the mark in claiming that a general spirit of despair and narcissism reigns among us, and that these technics are merely the latest expressions of it.

    I actually read this article during one of my classes because, yes, I was very bored. He is kidding himself who pretends that young people’s lives are not intolerably boring, shorn as they are of that which makes life worth living: deep friendships, large families, meaningful labor, a sense of place, a sense of time, at the very least an illusion of a future. Young people are inheriting a world that is brutal, uncertain, disorienting, and intensely alienating; in short, we are inheriting a world that is not real. If there was a real world for young people to inhabit and inherit, there would be none of the virtual realities into which we plunge ourselves.

    We are like disembodied spirits wandering through the waste places of the earth, in desperate search for any experience which will revive the ghost for even a short time. We, perhaps more than any other generation, are bearing the brunt of the apostasy preceding us. Several centuries of misguided, sinful philosophy is coalescing to throw each member of my generation “forever upon himself alone, threatening in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart,” as de Tocqueville wrote. Yes, my generation is wicked and pathetic, but only in the sense that our first parents were. Forces outside of ourselves compel us to turn inward upon ourselves in a reflexive attempt to cope with the dizzying spiritual misery incident to the modern world.

    Virtually all of modernity’s ideals are in direct opposition to the Christian religion, and to such a vehement extent that one or the other must be wiped from the earth. It will not be the Christian religion. The modern world is as much at war against God as it is against man, and though it may have succeeded in subjugating the latter for a time, it will not prevail against the former. I believe that my generation will live to see His vengeance, and at that point we will be forced to remove our earbuds, though perhaps too late. The righteous in my generation will be as coals snatched from the fire. Pray for them.

  14. EDIT: “Yes, my generation is wicked and pathetic, but [we are also a product of, and many of our neuroses are a response to, the surrounding culture, which has been shaped by our forebears.]”

  15. “Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” – Max Frisch

  16. “If there was a real world for young people to inhabit and inherit….”

    Speaking as someone still in his twenties (who is prone to internet addiction — thus the fact that I’m actually reading all these comments and replying), I live in a place where there are trees, people living nearby, a road to walk down, and a great many good books readily available at two different libraries. Also basic cooking equipment and a guitar. And a basketball court. Do other young people not live in places where ANY of these things may be found?

    (Note: There may be young people who DON’T have access to any of these things. I’m guessing a lot of them don’t have my level of internet access, either, although they probably do have cell phones.)

    I’m not convinced that the lack of a real world has driven us to vanities and pursuing the wind. Maybe our gnostic desire to escape bodily reality, limits, and the challenge of complete relationships…. And yes, maybe the breakdown of intergenerational relationships to teach us about the goodness of reality. But apostasy is always a choice. It may be a choice into which we are pushed by previous apostasy, ours or others’. But the real world is real, and it hasn’t gone away. What we do about that — accept it, deny it, or (preferably) love it and the One who made it, and do battle with its brokennesses — well, that’s our decision.

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