G. K. Chesterton reproached the modern experience of boredom. In Heretics, he declares:

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defense of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bores, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic.

I’ve heard somewhere that the word boredom does not exist in any ancient language; that it first appears in the seventeenth century, a distinctly modern notion. Matt Stewart’s essay on Un-Twittering Berry interests me primarily for the deeper questions it raises about the addictive nature of technology as a diversion from boredom. We seem to want this addiction. Although I have never touched Twitter—and imagine it as more often prosaic than poetic—I’m sure it offers the same sort of numbing as generally occurs with cell phone use, or with any technology that lures us to scroll or binge: Facebook, Spotify, Netflix series, or following English Premier League highlights on the internet. To escape boredom, we seek diversion. Why? What are we running from? Pascal used the analogy of the king’s hunting party, lamenting: “Here is this man, born to know the universe, to judge everything, to rule a whole state, wholly concerned with catching a hare.”

What are we running from?  

Several nights ago I taught Hannah Coulter to a class of university seniors, many of whom had grown up in small towns like Port William. When I asked them about whether they would want to stay in Port William the overwhelming majority said no—citing among other things the lack of opportunities. While students can imagine an eight-year-old experiencing Port William as an adventure and an eighty-year-old experiencing the town as comforting (if family were close by), they almost all imagine wanting to leave by the time they reach their teens. Why? Because they would be bored. Yet something new surfaced in this particular class session. Several students posed the hope of being able to take the intimacy they had known in small towns and transplant that, or re-create it, as they moved on in life from place to place. I have my doubts. That seems like trying to create intimacy through serial monogamy, I told them. But human beings want to see the world and make a difference. George Bailey dreads the banality of Bedford Falls. Phil Connors loathes Punxsutawney as a hick town. The first of her children Hannah describes as leaving Port William is Mattie, the Tech Guru: “he no longer fits the place or our life or the knowledge of anything here. Since a long time ago, when he has come back he has come back as a stranger.” We imagine Mattie and his family bored while visiting the Coulter farm.

I am reminded of Berry’s poem “Timbered Choir,” and his description of our generation’s restless desire to achieve something: “Men, women, and children now pursued the objective as if nobody ever had pursued it before.” The poem makes clear that none of us can really identify this objective that motivates our actions, the end or purpose of all our diversions. One way to explain Berry’s refusal to buy a computer is by affirming that no sufficient “end” has been offered to justify this “means.” Moreover, the computer produces distraction—taking us away from things more human, more real, more poetic.

Boredom forces us to face ourselves.  

Maybe it’s obvious to suggest that technology represents not only a running toward—toward progress, or toward efficiency, or toward staying up with the Joneses—but also that it represents a running away. But running away from what? Human beings long to know and be known. But being known in community forces us to face our failures and finitude. Boredom forces us to face ourselves. Peter Kreeft aptly explains the logic of our diversionary tactics:

We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We want to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very thing we complain about. For if we had leisure, we should look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it.

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  1. “I’ve heard somewhere that the word boredom does not exist in any ancient language; that it first appears in the seventeenth century, a distinctly modern notion.”
    I don’t know if this is true, but it would make sense, since a major component of modernity and the Industrial Revolution is the notion that if you’re not being “productive” by “working” (for someone else, of course), you’re wasting time and not doing your part for society. Although there’s been a bunch of attention paid to Marx recently for some anniversary or other, if you want to understand the modern world don’t read his scribblings, read “The Servile State” and other works by Belloc and Chesterton.

  2. Brian, thanks for the comment and for the encouragement to read Belloc. I’m familiar with GKC’s The Outline of Sanity and some of his other thoughts on Hudge and Gudge, but I’ve not read much Belloc. So I just sent for a copy of his The Servile State. Cheers.

  3. Kreeft is right in the main, no doubt. But I’d prefer to reserve “complexify” for other uses: for example, we should complexify our lives by making ourselves equal to our needs. At the moment we’re merely equal to the simplified task of paying to have them met. Paying a bill “with the click of a mouse” is a simple task; cobbling a shoe, making a crop, fixing necessary equipment—these are not. I had two grandfathers who couldn’t pay for much, but they both possessed complex skills that obviated the need for the simple and simplifying task of writing checks to others.

    But as Hamlet says, “Rightly to be great / Is not to stir without great argument, / But greatly to find quarrel in a straw / When honor’s at the stake,” and honor’s not at stake here, so long live the great Peter Kreeft. He’s right enough, and one of our tasks is rightly to be great.

    Good post.

  4. I knew Jason wouldn’t like the word “complexify” in that context, so I’m glad my intuition was vindicated. My hunch is that as our lives are simplified, as we no longer require the complex skills needed to make and do, we grow bored and look for ways to complexify them in superficial ways. And our technological overlords are happy to sell us such diversions.

  5. “I had two grandfathers who couldn’t pay for much, but they both possessed complex skills that obviated the need for the simple and simplifying task of writing checks to others.”

    Funny you mention this, Jason, as I recently had conversations with two different people, one in her 50’s, the other a millennial, who both found astonishing the fact that I still write checks to pay bills, instead of just clicking the mouse. Apparently even that “skill” is too complex/inefficient/time-consuming for a lot of moderns.

    When I was young there was a popular book called The Tyranny of the Urgent. It seems that we’ve moved far beyond that however into something like The Tyranny of the Immediate. Unfortunately this entails The Death of the Contemplative. I think Kreeft is correct, and that this is wrapped up with our being conditioned towards self-centered, instant gratification. There is undoubtedly a connection between our impatience in having to wait for things, and our impatience with any situation in which we perceive a lack of choices.

  6. Jason and Jeff, I think, at heart, I’m too simple of a guy to be very complex. I might have been better suited, happier, making shoes. I’ve got nimble hands I could see getting good at it–over a life time. No wonder I often feel like poor Alice when the Queen of Hearts tells her: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run twice as fast as that.” Of course, the members of Port William already think they are some place; they don’t have to get somewhere else. Staying in one place is such a great simplifier.

    Jason, your comments made me think of one of my favorite Berry quotes: “most people in the developed world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of ‘service’ that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.” (The Idea of a Local Economy, 250).

    I love Hummel little book, Rob. And thanks for bringing the conversation back to the contemplative. I think you’re right. Living simply–simplifying–remains a central spiritual discipline, as I think all the great saints illustrate. Chesterton describes the asceticism of St. Francis along these lines: “It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold. And it is precisely the positive and passionate quality of this part of his personality that is a challenge to the modern mind in the whole problem of the pursuit of pleasure.”

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