The Roots Of Boredom

Posted on February 6, 2011


“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”.  Thus said the French philosopher Blaise Pascal.  I used to think that boredom was an affliction that was peculiar to the young. Children and Youth are always rendering that complaint and view it as something very  difficult to endure.  I have recently begun to notice that a good many adults also seem to view this as an intolerable problem.  However, being adults and having learned some behavioral constraints,  they don’t whine and complain about it in the same way that children do.  They instead suffer with great angst and usually in silence.  It would seem then as if a great number of people live their lives in a state of being uncomfortable with themselves and consequently unable “to sit in a quiet room alone”.  Professor Douglas Groothius, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary states the following:  “In the middle of the seventeenth century in France, Blaise Pascal went to great lengths to expose those diversions that kept people from seeking truth in matters of ultimate significance. His words still ring true. In his day, diversion consisted of things like hunting, games, gambling, and other amusements. The repertoire of diversion was minute compared with what is available in our fully wired and over-stimulated postmodern world of cell phones, radios, laptops, video games, omnipresent television (in cars, restaurants, airports, etc.), extreme sports, and much else. Nevertheless, the human psychology of diversion remains unchanged. Diversion consoles us—in trivial ways—in the face of our miseries or perplexities; yet, paradoxically, it becomes the worst of our miseries because it hinders us from ruminating on and understanding our true condition. Thus, Pascal warns, it “leads us imperceptibly to destruction.” Why? If not for diversion, we would “be bored, and boredom would drive us to seek some more solid means of escape, but diversion passes our time and brings us imperceptibly to our death.” Through the course of protracted stupefaction, we learn to become oblivious to our eventual oblivion”.     What is obviously being stated here is exactly what Pascal was hinting at in his quote.  Simply stated he was saying that Mankind engages in endless diversions and pastimes in order to abate the anxiety and despair of refusing to make an existential choice concerning a relationship with God.   What then are we to make of the endless activity of our lives . Do we really want to spend so much time and money on the diversions of our materialistic culture.  Do we really want to travel and vacation in far-away places or are we simply diverting ourselves from thinking of  our own mortality.     Elizabeth Bishop,   perhaps the foremost poet of the last century wrote a wonderfully thoughtful poem  “Questions of Travel”.   Elizabeth Bishop epitomized an uprooted life of constant wandering and searching for (she probably knew not what), never seeming to find a comfort within herself. In this poem she seems to come close to finding the answer.

“Questions of Travel”:

Think of the long trip home.
Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
Where should we be today?
Is it right to be watching strangers in a play
in this strangest of theatres?
what childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.

. . . . . . . . .

—And never to have had to listen to rain
so much like politicians’ speeches:
two hours of unrelenting oratory
and then a sudden golden silence
n which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:

“Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?”

The question rings large and the answer seems to be right on the tip of the tongue,  still  I don’t think the poet quite sees the answer.    Perhaps the answer is best stated and left for us to ponder in quotes from Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard.  Sartre opined that “Life ceases to have any meaning the moment the illusion of being eternal departs from us”.  To which Kierkegaard a century earlier had observed that, ” Faith is the passion of all human beings. Many in every generation never come that far, but no one in any generation comes farther”.  We will leave it at that.