boredom Christian Ethics

Beset by Boredom: The Struggle of a Rational Animal

6:00:00 AMBenjamin Klare

Have you ever been to the zoo? If you have, I’m sure many of you will agree that it’s really quite a wonderful place. Not only do you get to see and learn about exotic animals from all over the world, but you are also invited to enter into the wild yourself. With endless hours of design work and creative planning, most zoos spare nearly no expense to recreate entire ecosystems for our edification and enjoyment.

However, despite all of this effort on behalf of the zoo, often times after wildly anticipating the sight of a real life lion, we find ourselves somewhat let down at the sight of an animal who seems, quite frankly, bored. Instead of watching a lion devour its prey, or a cheetah run at top speed, we merely observe an animal, lying in the grass or on top of a rock, perhaps licking its paws, seeming altogether bored.

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and even when it is, the zoo is still a worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but it would nevertheless be a better experience if some of the animals weren’t bored. I occasionally like to stop and think about what it would be like if someone were to come and observe humans in our “natural habitats,” meaning in our day to day lives, as if we were the animals in a zoo. Would they be wildly impressed with us? Surely they would be impressed with all that we did and built, and perhaps they would even marvel at all that we could do and build. But would they be impressed by what we are doing?

In all honesty, I think the answer would be “no”. Just as we are unimpressed by bored rhinoceroses, so too would these observers be unimpressed by bored humans. There, I said it. I revealed the implicit impetus for this whole article: that just like animals in a zoo, humans are very frequently bored. And isn’t this true? I mean, just this past week while enjoying the momentary hiatus from school that is spring break, I found myself overwhelmingly bored. In fact, I’d argue that many of us find ourselves to be bored way more than we want to be. After all, who ever wants to be bored (and if we are being totally honest, I am probably boring you by the sheer number of times that I have said the word “bored” in this paragraph alone)? If someone were to come and observe us then, though they may marvel at what we are, they would more often than not be unimpressed at finding us in the same state as we find many animals at the zoo: bored.

The question that arises then is this: why is being bored, and watching someone who is bored, so boring? Upon reflection, I think it is because we know that the animals and ourselves are capable of so much more than what they/we are doing. Take observing a cheetah at a zoo, for example. Why is it so boring for both the cheetah and for us when the cheetah is bored? Well, it is so boring, quite simply because both the cheetah and ourselves know, in one way or another, that the cheetah is capable of running at tremendous speeds. Thus, we are bored with a bored cheetah because we know that it could be doing something so much more exhilarating and impressive than what it is doing. Likewise, the cheetah is bored too because it knows, in a different sense, that it could perform a feat of incredible speed if only it had the incentive to do so. Similarly, we are bored by doing nothing because we realize that we could be doing something so much better, that is, that we could be doing something. Naturally, then, what is boring is boring because it is somehow less, and significantly less, than what could be. Consequently, we are bored with boredom, because we realize that it stands in the way of us becoming and being more than what we are at that moment.

In order to counteract our boredom then, we try to occupy ourselves so that we are no longer bored. Unfortunately though, many of us do so in ineffective and futile ways.  Beset by boredom, we rational animals try to tame our boredom with novelty. Novelty which typically manifests itself in entertainment or the attempt to acquire a multitude of things. Since we cannot easily satisfy ourselves so that the boredom subsides, we seek to saturate ourselves with continuous activity so as to drive boredom far from our mind. Finding myself bored on spring break, for example, I wasted hours upon hours watching seemingly endless episodes of The Office on Netflix. Others might find themselves binge eating or drinking, impulsively shopping, or throwing away hours of their life in front of a screen like myself.  The problem with these counteractive tactics, however, is that they address only the symptoms without attacking the root cause. As a result, when the episode has ended, when the shopping is finished, and when the food has been consumed, we find ourselves in the same state once again, seeking another cure for the seemingly incurable disease that is boredom.

How then are we to counteract the pandemic of boredom? Well, if boredom arises from the lack of being who we are, then the antidote is to become who we are. For Dietrich von Hildebrand, the solution comes by taking hold of reality, accepting our rational nature, and becoming who we truly are and are meant to be. Hildebrand, in his Christian Ethics, writes that “one of man’s deepest characteristics … is the capacity to transcend himself” (15). This transcendence, he says, “displays itself above all in participation in the objective logos of being … which takes place in every value response wherein we conform either with our will or with our heart to the important-in-itself” (16). Therefore, for Hildebrand, the antidote to boredom seems to be value, and a selfless life lived in accordance with the intrinsically important. With boredom, it isn’t so much about not seeing value (as I wrote about in my last article), but rather about failing to live our lives in accordance with value.

For Hildebrand, “a decisive mark of the value response is its character of self-abandonment” (14). Practically, a life lived in accordance with value is a life marked by the selfless giving of oneself. So man, to overcome boredom, and to become who he is meant to be, must see the world of value surrounding him, and selflessly transcend himself by giving himself fully to those values. Though “self-centered happiness at length wears itself out and ends in boredom and emptiness,” self-abandonment to value “elevates and liberates us,” granting us true happiness and fullness of life (11). Therefore, while animals may remain permanently susceptible to the disease of boredom, through selflessness, we can overcome it.

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