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A Theological Analysis of Boredom

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.



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.Lovely, Cathleen. Thank you!And now that you mention it, I must say that I can imagine few studies more boring than theology. My eyes would glaze over like a franchise doughnut..

What a great topic! I think of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death and wonder about the ways we set up boredom in relation to other mental states.

Fun piece; he's such a charmer of an essayist. I'd love to see a theological meditation on boredom jump off from notion of boredom being experienced in the area of the brain that is the "crossroads of time and desire." That nails it, I think.

@WmFG, Yes! I was also thinking of Postman. The relation of technology to the lived experience called "boredom" is key.

One thing that needs unpacking is boredom as a response to others, the attribution of "boring" we project on others. One thing I devoutly desire and pray for is a deeper interest in other people.

@WmFG/Yawn/ Sorry, man, were you saying something?:)

Would I rather be boring or frumpy? Hmm.

Kierkegaard's Either/Or. Loved it many years ago as undergrad and the moral stuck with me (thank God).Certainly appropros given the Weiner fiasco. Here are the spark notes from the book, Kierkegaard's pseudonym is "A".

Don Juan is the ultimate selfish aesthete. Repetition dulls the pleasure of an act, so Don Juan never repeats the act of love more than once with the same woman. Although he never sleeps with the same woman twice, by so doing he continually repeats the act of sleeping with a new woman. He can never enjoy the woman he is with because he is in such a hurry to get to the next one. A is devoted to pleasure as well and sees repetition as an enemy of pleasure. However, A believes that obtaining true aesthetic pleasure requires a more measured approach than blindly following ones passions, as Don Juan does.The extreme difficulty of achieving true aesthetic pleasure leads A to claim that boredom is the most common, and unpleasant, human state. In fact, A goes so far as to claim that it is the root of all evil and makes a number of proposals for how it ought to be dealt with.

"Rare is the contemporary parent or grandparent who has not heard these kids, when presented with a project for relief of their boredomgo outside, read a bookreply, with a heavy accent on each syllable, 'Bor-ing.'"In my own experience, after the children say "Bor-ing", the parental "trick" that often works best is to leave them alone. Inevitably (well okay, not inevitably....but usually!) within 10 minutes they've found something to interest them---a friend to visit, an old game pulled out of the closet, a book to read, an abandoned-for-months crafts project restarted. I don't know about a theology of boredom, but I'd posit a connection between boredom and creativity. And maybe from there a connection between boredom and certain aspects of "waiting on the Lord"?

I am generally a fan of Epstein's essays, but this one was a bit boring. I liked it when he raised the value of boredom in modern life, and the idea/affliction of acedia in early monastic life, which Kathleen Norris has written about so well. I am envious of boredom, having found the deepest spiritual and creative satisfactions in stretches that would be described as boring. But boredom, like acedia, can bleed into depression, and that becomes perilous and confuses the two states. I think most of what people think of as boring is simply doing what we don't want to do, as in tedium. Whether that is different from boredom, or whether boredom has so many meanings and situations as to make it almost meaningless, I don't know.

I too found this essay boring. He never penetrated the heart of the question istm, and instead simply went over more and more and more related phenomena without coming to a point or an insight worth persevering for.I've heard boredom defined (it was Nathan Mitchell, I think) as what results when you are "compelled to attend to things that are insignificant" and that was my experience of reading the article. I probably would have abandoned it sooner, but because Cathleen recommended it, I assumed that it would come to a point!

Hmmm, I suppose our experience of boredom could be explained by one of two differing theologies about movement in the early Patristic period:Origen, on the one hand, assumed that primordial humanity became stagnant as a result of the fall, and that a second creative act of God brought us into greater motion... in other words, salvific creation had a trajectory of increasing motion. Theologians like Maximus the Confessor, however, assumed that we started out chaotic and divided, and that God's will is to bring us into eternal rest in Him... a trajectory of decreasing motion. (I'm not sure which is a better picture of how world is becoming better aligned with God, but I'm inclined to follow Maximus's notion of distracted chaos settling into simple rest, since it provides a fairly positive theological explanation for the anthropological fact that humans age and can't move as fast or do as much stuff as perhaps they once used to.)If we experience boredom, perhaps it is because we are still in the process of entering into that mode which God wants for us. Maybe our eschatalogical trajectory is indeed away from movement/chaos/division towards rest/simplicity/unity with God... but that doesn't mean we immediately recognize or embrace that restful unity as a good thing! For example, there's a part of humanity that's very much addicted to distraction... in our fallenness, we'd actually rather run around like chickens with our head cut off, creating drama and agitating against one another on blogs or on battlefields or whatever, because.. at least its interesting and keeps us busy! We have a hard time imagining the the fulfillment of absolute rest/simplicity/unity (with each other and with the divine) as a truly good thing. Not knowing what that is, we fear it and try to fight it. Swimming upstream and going nowhere, we experience 'boredom' as a frustrating, unsettled, and futile desire for distraction and preoccupation.

I'm with Rita. Joseph Epstein is a textbook counterintellectual: a man with a fancy education, a pleasant prose style, lots of spleen, and almost nothing to say. He may be right about novels: they may be worthy of interest even if they don't have much of a plot. But a conceptual essay without an argument isn't worth reading, whether or not it's boring.

I always thought the afterlife in the movie "Beetlejuice" was a hilarious riff on boredom. Likewise, Kurt Vonnegut's take on the afterlife in "Slapstick." The dead mill around a vast waiting room getting an occasional chance to talk to the living--like phone privileges in a prison, I guess. The dead refer to the place as "the Turkey Farm."Theologically, I've always wondered whether heaven and hell are the same place, the difference being that those in heaven will be content to contemplate the face of the Almighty for eternity, whereas those in hell will enjoy it for about ten minutes and then start looking around in vain for a deck of cards or a DVD.

"Theologians like Maximus the Confessor, however, assumed that we started out chaotic and divided, and that Gods will is to bring us into eternal rest in Him a trajectory of decreasing motion."Stephanie --Ugh! Even a Heaven that is always the same sounds like Hell. Brownies without end. I've always thought of Heaven as a continuously increasing discovery of God ("ever ancient, ever new"), and of His creatures too, all the way into eternity. Otherwise it would be boredom all the way up.What's the existential difference between being bored and being boring? Can one be existentially boring? Sounds like a self-contradiction. It's not topics that are boring, it's people who are bored.Somehow this article on "planking" seems relevant. Totally boring, but folks do it.

Ann, I submit that people who are boring never seem to be bored.

"Even a Heaven that is always the same sounds like Hell. Brownies without end."Depends on what they put IN the brownies, no? I have to go do some planking now. (Yes, very strange ...)Can you tell I've finished grading freshman research papers? Talk about heaven!

Re: planking: *Woolworths* is the largest employer in Australia? Is that the same retail outfit that my mother used to refer to as "the dime store" when I as a lad?

I agree that the symptoms of boredom to sound more than a little like depression. Maybe boredom doesn't cause depression - maybe it is the other way around.

I heard my daughter say the other day: "My mother always said that only boring people go around complaining about being bored all the time, and she was right." I guess making sweeping statements, runs in the family.But I will stick with that one, insofar as it describes a person's habitual mindset. Samuel Johnson once said that someone who was tired of London must be tired of life. And I do think a lack of interest in life is nothing to boast of.The occasional tedious misery of being trapped in isolation in which there is little opportunity for diversion from one's plight is another matter. The worst case scenarios are things like hospital rooms in the middle of a sleepless night. Prayer is no doubt an intermittent option, but I am not the sort of spiritual athlete for all-night stints. Maybe one can train oneself up to such situations , with a well-filled memory and a will of steel, but most of us are probably not up to it though we may deeply admire those who can. Just think of Tony Judt, trapped in his situation. What a gallant and admirable use of his resources he was able to make. No complaints about boredom there.As to the connection with theology, my first introduction to mind -blowing boredom in church was an ill-thought out scheme under which the elementary school children at my parish school were required to attend AFTER SCHOOL every Monday, for dreary year after year, an interminable "Miraculous Medal Novena" that included the same rigamarole introductions and prayers every week, and involved a soppy sermon given too often by a young priest who constantly worked up to a natural conclusion, and then got a further inspiration and trailed off on some other tack. We easily exhausted the meager attractions of the little booklets we got... even the stories of miraculous cures in the back palled. It was like waiting for a train that would never come....

Matthew Boudway writes: (06/13/2011 - 12:29 pm) :

Im with Rita. Joseph Epstein is a textbook counterintellectual: a man with a fancy education, a pleasant prose style, lots of spleen, and almost nothing to say.

Had to look up that word. Apparently, it's a really nasty insult in the culture wars. What might Epstein call you? Just curious. It's fun watching the shells fly back and forth over the battlefield.

Whenever I am bored, I remind myself that eventually a day will come when I have only a few hours or minutes left to live, and then I'll wish for all the time I wasted sitting around being bored.

Most of us understand boring when we are foreced to do something. Sit with a mother or spouse's friend, a required class, talking to someone who will not stop for a second so you can excuse yourself, an unprepared sermon and so on. Other than that our boredom is due to our attitude The less generous a person is the more bored and boring they are. George Sanders seems like a good example. He was very boring and full of himself.

David,I suspect Jospeh Epstein wouldn't bother calling me anything. He doesn't bother with small game; he specializes in dropping a big name and then giving it a good kick in the ribs. The term "counterintellectual" may figure in the culture wars, but it isn't exactly Epstein's conservatism that I had in mind. It's his intellectual complacency and lofty disdain for those who are less complacent -- and, in partcular, for anyone guilty of perpetrating a theory. Epstein doesn't go in for theories. Theories are for people who take themselves too seriously. Epstein prefers anecdotes, allusions, and drive-by insults.

A triad of observations:The most perceptive thinker on boredom of recent vintage was Walker Percy whose fictions (redolent of Kierkegaard) examine the problem of "everydayness." I was almost tempted to do a theological analysis of boredom the other day as I sat through the business meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.Joseph Epstein, whom I have read over the years, is clever and clever people are boring in large doses.

Didn't Walker Percy's father kill himself, and didn't he suspect that his mother also did? I'm quite sure there's such a thing as pathological boredom, and I don't doubt it's the same thing as clinical depression.

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