The possibilities of boredom
Lockdown is evoking a curious sensation in us all, of feeling unremittingly under pressure but simultaneously rather bored. On the surface, it seems reasonable to ascribe our boredom to a lack of stimulation, and to argue that we are victims of our 21stcentury Western preoccupation with the ‘hedonic treadmill’ of consumerism and productivity. We are unsure of who we are, and what we’re supposed to be doing, without the familiar steer of distraction.
The fantasy that was so prevalent in the first lockdown was that we would use our boredom to foster creativity. We would embark on rich inward journeys, where, like a prisoner in a cell, we can notice every detail of our confined existence and live with greater depth, valuing quality over quantity. The fact that few of us actually managed that, either then or now, implies that boredom is not just the necessary lull before the ensuing storm of inspiration.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard associated boredom with an absence of meaning, an emptiness of not knowing ourselves, of being cut off from our core selves. Boredom, then, is a nothingness, a disconnection. Perhaps one reason so many of us are feeling increasingly anxious, is that it is not boredom we are confronting, but an inner emptiness, a rudderless fragility that is extremely painful but which we, wrongly, call boredom.
One problem is that boredom may also be a mechanism that is protecting us from what Adam Phillips calls “the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be.” Far easier, perhaps, to describe ourselves as bored, rather than afraid, or inadequate to the task of living fully and boldly, a task to which these lockdowns have implacably drawn our attention.
One response to our boredom is to be curious about it. Is being bored a catch-all to cover much more complex feelings? What functions does our boredom serve? If we can start to make sense of what our boredom signifies, and why it bothers us so much, then we are on the road to reinvigoration and reconnection. And then, as Cheryl Strayed wrote long before Covid, “the useless days will add up to something [because] these things are your becoming.”