The Capacity To Be Bored Is A Blessing
If humans were incapable of getting bored it would be a curse not a blessing since it would signify their fundamental inability to be aware of or engage in different levels of contact with people and the world. Only full and authentic contact can create mindful engagement with the gestalt in question so that all other cares and concerns recede to the background. It’s in this state of full contact that our interest is engaged, and it’s where we feel passionate and joyful not empty and distressed.
We humans, divorced from nature yet still subject to its rules, have greater leeway than other organisms to choose our behaviors and with these choices determine the meaning of our lives. We, unlike other animals more intimately tied to nature whose instinctive apparatus guides behavior, must seek to make meaning for ourselves and to orient around this meaning since meaning isn’t given through the instinctive apparatus or the oneness with nature relying heavily on instincts entails.
We are separated, from nature and from one another, from the oneness most other organisms experience as a matter of course and towards which we’re always trying to return. Oneness equals comfort and security, it equals going back to the womb in the emotional and psychological sense, it equals the cure to loneliness and existential isolation. Yes, physical dangers of all kinds exist for all organisms, dangers that threaten their immediate physical survival. But these organisms don’t need to worry about their psychological survival because their meaning is already given. We do need to worry about our psychological survival. As Fromm once wrote, “Man is the only animal for whom his own existence is a problem which he has to solve.”
What this has to do with boredom is that we can think of the state, and depression too since boredom and depression are the same entity at different levels of intensity, as synonymous with a pervasive sense of existential isolation. The discomfort cued off when you’re feeling bored, the desperation, that need to do something, anything as quickly as possible to take away the unwanted emptiness, is at the unconscious level your confrontation with the distressing psychological reality of your human situation, with your recognition that you are a separate sentient organism housed in a separate skin from all other organisms and no one has access to your phenomenological experience, to your thoughts and feelings, to your lived experience, except for you. This is existential isolation, it’s the isolation that can never be bridged because of the given realities and constraints of our human situation as such. We can put ourselves around as many people as we like, we can seek to understand them and they can seek to understand us, but we’re still engaging from within the confines of our own subjective skins with our own subjective perceptions and no one can think our thoughts or feel our feelings or see the world through our eyes except for us.
As separate beings we’re always unconsciously trying to reconnect. We yearn for healthy authentic connection, especially with people but also with our endeavors and with life itself. The problem is that many of us yearn for connection and the reduction of painful existential anxiety connection entails so strongly that we fall victim to unhealthy neurotic forms of connection, forms where we sacrifice our human freedom on the altar of anxiety reduction. We choose global ways of relating to people and the world that don’t help us grow but keep us dependent, that don’t reduce suffering but add to it, that don’t offer freedom but shackle us to invisible but very real emotional and psychological chains.
When we’re bored we’re not feeling connected, our usual forms of contact with people and the world have broken down, leaving us in that distressed state that is actually the felt sense of existential isolation bubbling into conscious awareness. If we were to plot the existential isolation continuum, it would go boredom, depression, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide completion. What all of these points have in common is that unbearable feeling of being completely and utterly alone in the world, of being disconnected, of being isolated. The sense of existential isolation ranges at different levels of intensity from mild in the case of boredom to severe in the case of depression to flashing red lights severe in the case of suicidal ideation.
But wherever you happen to be on the existential isolation continuum, the cure, if we can call it that, is the same. The cure is cultivating an authentic sense of connection with people and the world where you at once maintain your individuality and fully merge with whatever it is you are connecting to. The healthy state of oneness for a human being is one that merges but doesn’t surrender freedom of Self or awareness of individuality. Fromm probably said it best in the context of love when he wrote “In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one yet remain two.”
This is the problem for most of us in our relationships and life endeavors, we seek to fulfill one of those sides at the expense of the other. We either seek to lose ourselves completely in our object of devotion in order to reduce the existential anxiety caused by the sense of isolation, and as a result secretly become resentful and hostile about our lack of freedom and loss of individuality, or we try to remain free individuals at all costs, and as a result feel very lonely and empty.
At this stage in our evolutionary history, as sentient organisms aware of ourselves as separate individuals and aware of deep contradictory needs within us to merge with some other object and at the same time fiercely protect our individuality, we must be given the space to self-actualize, to increase our individuality in our own unique way, while at the same time connect with people and endeavors important to us.
At any rate the cure to boredom is mindfulness, it’s taking on the here and now attitude, working to be as fully present in daily life as possible. We’ve got to at least partially understand boredom as a forgetting, a forgetting of all the wonders of life that surround us, wonders that were fully lived and appreciated in childhood but are now only given a cursory glance. Common pastimes and activities like driving a car or doing the dishes are considered mundane, maybe even a nuisance. The central problem is only partial contact with the object in question. Taking on the mindful attitude, comimg as fully to the moment as possible, and then focusing all our concentration on the task at hand immediately increases the contact level, which increases interest.
The capacity to be bored is a blessing because it means you have the power within you to discover what really does move you. You even being able to tell the difference between a state of boredom and a state of active interest is what makes you uniquely human and uniquely free amongst lifeforms on earth. You get to partially choose your destiny, to use what fully captures your attention as a compass for how you need to be spending your time.
Next time you feel bored, instead of scrambling to fill up that dreadful space, remind yourself that you’re probably not making very good contact with your surroundings. Try to come to the present moment and sit with your feelings. If you’re bored all the time you’re doing something wrong. Like we already said, it’s most likely a combination of a lack of the here and now attitude in daily life and a lack of people and endeavors that feel magnetic and really pull out that behavior of reaching across the existential divide in order to try and make authentic contact.
It all starts and ends with taking on a more mindful attitude though because greater sensitivity to life points us in the directions we need to go. The cure to boredom is mindfulness. The cure to the existential isolation that spawns boredom is authentic connection with people and endeavors, the kind of connection that could be called active interest, the kind of connection where Self is not lost but augmented, where individuality is maintained while at the same time a merging occurs.