The Uses of Boredom

How we deal with boredom says a lot about us as individuals. In Dickens’ novel Bleak House, there is an exchange between Richard Carstone, a likeable but wayward character, and Esther Summerson, the story’s level-headed heroine. Richard is discussing his apprenticeship as a doctor:

“Then,” pursued Richard, “it’s monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day.”

“But I am afraid,” said I, “this is an objection to all kinds of application—to life itself, except under some very uncommon circumstances.”

This taedium vitae is something we all try to escape at some time. Yet our responses to boredom differ, as do the consequences. Much of the trouble people get into stems from boredom. Even the worst vices are often sought out not so much for their own sake as distractions from monotony.

Aside from drudgery, there is the question of free time. Carolyn Y. Johnson in her essay “In defense of boredom” (This Week, March 28, 2008) complains that “empty moments” in our lives “are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices.” But is this the best use of having nothing to do? The author argues that

We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life’s greatest luxuries—one not available to creatures that spend all their time in mere survival. To be bored is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one. It is in reflection that people often discover something new…. Granted many people emerge from boredom feeling that they have accomplished nothing. But is accomplishment really the point of life? There is a strong argument that boredom… is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.

Already seventy years ago Chesterton was making the same complaint, that the habit of leisure, the “noble habit of doing nothing at all,” was woefully neglected. Today’s opportunities for mindless dissipation are more obvious and more convenient, but well before the iPod or the internet, men managed to connive at all sorts of mischief to occupy their time. Johnson is probably on the right tack when she says that technology is neither the cause nor cure for what ails us. In the end it comes down to people and the choices they make about their use of time, including their use of boredom.

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