Boredom; Or, The Intolerable Tyranny of the Mundane

In the meantime, she almost forgot why she was running away…. And, perhaps, there was another reason ….. A reason that had to do with the sameness of each and every week. She was bored with simply being straight-A’s Claudia Kincaid. She was tired of arguing about whose turn it was to choose the Sunday night seven-thirty television show, of injustice and of the monotony of everything.

boredomWith these words, e.l. konigsburg begins her delightful children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Claudia feels and expresses what I take to be an overwhelmingly apt description of our age. I suppose there are other ways that we might describe the feel of our age (malaise is one that Charles Taylor uses), but boredom seems to capture it. Yet there’s a strange contradiction in all of this. We are by far the most entertained culture in the history of culture. Rarely is one away from a screen. Standing in line seems intolerable without our phone. Ron Swanson’s quest to get off the grid strikes the way it struck Tom and Donna: crazy. Why would anyone want to be off the grid? Why would anyone want to be away from the action? Strangely, we don’t find any of this satisfying and technology companies work overtime to keep us ever more accessed (and accessible). How’d we get here? Pope Benedict (in God is Near Us) offers this as something of a diagnosis as to why we live in such a bored age.

 What was most characteristic of a country…no longer allowed to be open to anything transcendent, was its unbelievable dreariness, the boredom of a world that can expect nothing of itself, the everlasting grayness of leaden everyday life with no celebration, in which, ultimately, nothing else can arrive, because man alone simply reproduces himself.

In our modern age, we’ve flattened the world into a single realm; a unitary reality tied strictly to the physical, a world devoid of anything beyond it that might draw us further out and beyond it. Here’s one way to test where you stand: How would you answer this rather simple question: What is the sun? If you’re like 9.7 out of 10 of my students, you answered that the sun is a giant ball of plasma (as They Might be Giants helpful correct us to believe) some 93 million miles away that produces, through nuclear reactions, the light and heat necessary for life on earth. Now, my point isn’t that this is wrong. My point is that we default to a scientific answer to questions about physical reality. Why do we do that? Why do we go to the reductionistic, scientific answer to explain physical reality? In allowing ourselves to do this, we effectively cut off our ability to truly joy in this world, to truly wonder, to redeem our bored lives.

Here’s Pope Benedict’s offer of an antidote to this flattened boredom inducing view.

 The world needs more than itself. Amid the dreariness, people do not need distraction that will in the end become dreary itself; they are asking for mystery even if they do not realize this themselves. They need the sign of the wholly Other, the living word of God entering into this our age…, the great transforming Other, the element without which the world can only sink into gray boredom.

The answer to boredom is redeveloping a sense of mystery and wonder about the world. A realization that our modern, bored age insofar as it refuses the Other, refuses a world that could enthrall it. A world where trees clap their hands and the heavens declare the handiwork of God, and those verbs are not taken as mere metaphor. Too often growing up is thought to mean giving up on the world of faerie and moving on to ‘real’ things. But the biblical worldview calls us to quite the opposite conclusion. Children, in fact, have the world aright. It’s we sophisticated adults who’ve gotten it wrong side up. Rather than seeing the sun as some giant ball of plasma, rather than growing up into the ‘real’ (read: scientific) world, would that we see it the way Scripture gives it to us,

 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so.  And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.  And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness.

SunThe sun and moon are rulers. They rule over the night and day. We are invited by Scripture to look at the created order to find the World beyond, to see in creation Him who made it, to see it as infused with an Other who is praised and noted in all that is created. We are called to see ourselves in the image of the Sun as rulers (see the promises give to Abram in Genesis 15).  Perhaps, next time the sun flushes our eyes with light, we think of the One who is the Light of the World.  Perhaps next we eat bread and drink wine, we’ll think of the One who’s body is bread and blood is wine.  Perhaps in these mundane things, His kingdom will break through and incite our imaginations and draw us into that world that is coming. Insofar as we can see the created order this way, the way that God has set it up, we’ll be free from the tyranny of the mundane.

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Josh Spears writes things sometimes for this blog.  He also has a family with a wife and some children.  He teaches too.  He clearly pulls off a bowtie.