Boredom and Experiential Poverty

“I’m bored” is a refrain many students now on summer vacation will inevitably proclaim. Remarkably, it only takes a few days into the summer break for this declaration to be issued. But if liberty from the tyranny of school is all students yearn for, why then does the onset of boredom come about so quickly?

It seems to me that boredom manifests itself as the result of three different (but somewhat linked) feelings or perceptions:

1. A lack of purpose. 

2. Nothing happening.

3. Too much happening.

Each of these conditions of boredom is exceptionally intriguing and worthy of unpacking, but in this post, I will focus on number three.

In his book Silence in the Age of Noise, Erling Kagge addresses this third form of boredom calling it a kind of “experiential poverty” which results from always chasing the next high in which people “…carry on seeking increasingly more powerful experiences.” I find this to be a particularly poignant observation, that more is less, especially in the area of Houston which I live and work where many of people can provide any number of exciting and exotic experiences for themselves.

“The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new, being available around the clock, sending messages and clicking further, watching something you haven’t seen yet, is naive.” 

Yet this is what most people attempt to provide to themselves and their children. If the pre-activities of your child’s 8th-grade dance involves being chauffeured around by a limousine, a photo shoot at the lake, and a meal at a restaurant where the average entree is $50, what do kids have to look forward to? Or vacations? Or sports experience? Or a massive haul of birthday gifts?

And the same is true for adults. Perhaps it is the latest tech-gadget, online stimulant, dining/bar experience, cruise, vehicle, corporate climb, thrill-seeking, gambling, or social media grooming.

Paradoxically, the more you try to avoid boredom, the more bored you become.

All these points back towards the theme of the book which is the positive value of silence, and especially chapter 9 (social media) and chapter 10 (living simplistically). Clearly, Kagge feels that these kinds of empty distractions separate ourselves from what we might call our true self, which is a self more clear in intention and purpose, more whole and connected, whose lens has been cleaned.

How do we avoid this experiential poverty which leads to boredom? Great question.

“We must take time out, pausing to breathe deeply, shut out the world and use the time to experience ourselves.” 

Certainly, this does not mean throwing everything away, becoming a hermit, and moving into a cave somewhere in western Ireland. We are called to be a part of the world, responsible not only to ourselves but to our neighbor as well.

So part of the answer then must then include engagement, first with ourselves and then with those around us. How do we engage ourselves? There are entire books written on that subject, of course, but it begins with a very 21st-century term: unplugging. Only after doing this can we begin introspection through reflection, and only after that can we begin to even peripherally understand ourselves.

Another aspect is surely employing a degree of balance in our lives which nearly every religion and philosophy advocates. This involves living life simply, not only in thought but in action as well. Again, this doesn’t mean move to the closest available cave, but it does mean at the very least curbing your appetites.

I also cannot help but think a person engaged with nature on occasion is better for it. Go out there and get you some skovstilhed, which is Norwegian for the calmness of spirit brought about by being among trees in number, but if you haven’t picked up on my belief in the benefits of spending time in nature on this blog, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Which brings me to my last point, paying attention…to everything; the beauty of a sunset, a couple’s loving regard for each other, the fluttering of a butterfly, how miraculously your chest rises and falls roughly 23,000 times a day, how beyond that blue atmosphere above your head is endless space, how there is a universe in just the small amount of grass and dirt below your feet, and how, somehow, we humans manage to exist within all of it. We live, we love, we hate, we mourn, we hope, we dream, and sadly we distract ourselves from a richer existence which only benefits ourselves and others.

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