So I wanted to revisit a topic that I alluded to a few weeks ago when I wrote about why I don’t watch movies. I mentioned in that post how I seem to have a pathological fear of boredom. I’ve been thinking about that a lot more lately, and I decided I’d delve into that topic a little deeper.
The concept of boredom fascinates me for a number of reasons. First of all, why am I so terrified of being bored? Secondly, why does our society as a whole vilify boredom and bombard us with ways to stave off boredom? Is boredom a bad thing? Should it be?
I’ve actually been experimenting slightly with embracing boredom lately. For example, I don’t necessarily feel the need to have music playing in my ears at all times. I’m finding that I actually enjoy music more if I only listen to it when I can really appreciate it, rather than listening to at all times, such as when I’m blogging, or surrounded by my wife and children, or what have you. On the other hand, there’s a lot of music out there, and by listening to music less often, I’m inevitably going to miss out on some. But, there are advantages and disadvantages to everything, I suppose.
The real question, though, is why do we as a society fear boredom so greatly and do everything we can to eradicate it? It seems like we are constantly surrounded by entertainment in all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties. It’s impossible to look anywhere without seeing something that somebody has come up with as an activity to counteract boredom. Multi-billion dollar industries exist whose main goal is to make sure that people don’t ever have to be bored. Books, movies, television, music, video games…all of these things are there, at least partially, so that people can have something to do. Why? What is so bad about boredom?
The cynical answer is that the elites of our society don’t want us to think too much about our lives and/or situations. It’s sort of the modern day equivalent of the Roman concept of “bread & circuses”. Entertain people and keep them full and then they don’t think too hard or start to question the way things are. I do tend to think that there’s something to this idea, but I think it’s somewhat paranoid to think this is the sole explanation. After all, much if not most entertainment is pretty mind-numbing. There isn’t a lot out there, especially that has mass appeal, that makes people really think and that challenges their perceptions of life and reality. However, I feel that it ascribes too much power to “elites” to assume that there’s some sort of conspiracy to keep people fat and complacent. After all, there’s plenty of books, movies, music, etc. out there that’s thought-provoking and challenging. People just tend to not be interested. That makes me think that the real explanation for the problem of boredom lies within people, not with any sort of conspiracy theory.
So why do people gravitate to mind-numbing forms of entertainment? Why do we obsess over them and attempt to fill our lives with these things so that we might never have to worry about ever being bored? Well, I suspect that, in our sinful condition, living in a broken world, we fear boredom because we don’t want to have to think. I know, this sounds just like what I was saying in the previous paragraph. But I’m not saying that there’s some sort of powerful and shadowy elite that doesn’t want us to think. I’m saying that we don’t want to think. Because really, life is awful. Life is painful, sad, horrifying, full of discomfort and agony and heartbreak. And we don’t want to have to face this reality. So we hide ourselves away in our reality TV shows and trashy movies and celebrity gossip and various other less savory pursuits, because we don’t want to think about how horrible this world really is.
So is that all there is to it? Fear of boredom is really just fear of having time to reflect on the sinful condition of the world? Maybe. I have another theory though, one that applies specifically to small towns. I feel sometimes that small towns, like the one I live in, are especially susceptible to boredom and to the unhealthy activities that people engage in to eliminate boredom. I think that people living in small towns (especially kids) watch TV and movies, and look at stuff on the internet, and they see the way that big cities are portrayed in these media: full of glitz and glamour and lots of stuff to do. And then they look at their own lives, and at the lack of things to do where they live, and they get bored. And so people in these small towns turn to things such as drugs and alcohol in an attempt to have something to do to deal with the boredom they feel. And boredom must be a bad thing, because it reflects the fact that they’re poor and live in the middle of nowhere. After all, if they were rich and lived in a big city, they wouldn’t be bored, because there’s tons of stuff to do in big cities.
In the end, I don’t know that I’m any closer now to solving the problem of boredom. Pure speculation, after all, can only get one so far. I would love to know more about the history of boredom. If anybody out there knows of any good books on boredom, let me know. I find this whole topic fascinating. I’m especially interested in perceptions of boredom in pre-industrial times. Did peasants working on small farms 500 years ago ever get bored? Or were they too busy trying to survive? Is boredom a luxury that only the relatively well-off can indulge in? Or has boredom been an issue at all times and places? These are some of the questions I want answers to.