Do we get bored with everything? Do friends and lovers, work and play, and even life itself eventually become dull and tedious? Does dissatisfaction with people and projects always set in? If so, should we quit what we are tired of, and try something else? Or should we accept the familiar because we know that the new slowly becomes boring too, or because we think it’s our duty to carry on?
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve written about many times in this blog, famously thought that boredom was the essence to the human condition, which we experience when life is devoid of its usual distractions. We keep busy so as not to experience this essential boredom. But are we bored because life is boring or because we are bores? Some are bored by everything, others find simple things fascinating. So boredom is not inevitable, nor is it essential. Schopenhauer was wrong.
Do particular activities that were once fascinating become boring over time? Yes. As a teenager I played competitive table tennis; after a few years I was bored with table tennis. Later I played high-stakes poker; within a short time I was bored with poker. Later I learned to play golf; once I played reasonably well, I found golf boring. Does my boredom say something about me, or does it say something about these activities? Perhaps I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating. I know that stimulating persons need stimulation, and both our minds and bodies will atrophy without it.
Fortunately some activities are more stimulating than others. I have never ceased to find the pursuit of knowledge interesting. Yes, I grew bored teaching an introductory college ethics classes for the one hundredth time, but if you have mastered philosophical ethics to your satisfaction, then find another topic. Dont worry. There are plenty of things to do and learn. Might we eventually know everything and get bored? I don’t know. If I become omniscient I’ll let you know.
How about people? I have known people who have few thoughts, and others who have shallow thoughts. Such people ask few questions. And they already have their answers—usually the first ones they were exposed to. I find such people boring. By contrast people on a journey are interesting, they are evolving. With them you never encounter the same person, they are as petals unfolding. They are like ships that sail in the ocean rather than being stuck in dry dock. How can you tire of their constant surprise?
Still you may find yourself disappointed with someone you previously respected, or you may discover that someone is not as good as you thought they were. What should you do? This is a difficult question, and relates to a previous post about “settling,” especially for intimate partners. If your expectations for such partners are too high, you are bound to be disappointed; if your expectations are too low, if you settle for a bad partner, you are bound to be discontent or even traumatized.
Here’s my advice. If you are almost always bored and you find your friends or lovers boring, it’s probably your problem. If you are usually interested in people and you find your friends or lovers boring, you should probably find more stimulating friends and lovers. If we could live multiple lives simultaneously we could discover which friends, lovers, activities and projects were best. But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose. (Thus confirming Sartre’s dictate that we are “condemned to be free.”)
Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves. We are too close to ourselves. We don’t know if we deserve better friends or lovers or jobs, or if we are lucky to have our current ones. The best thing we can do is ask others who know and love us what they think. Should I try something or someone else, do I deserve better? Or should I be satisfied with what I have? Those who love us can’t know with certainty the answer to these questions, but they can be more objective about us than we can—for they stand outside of our subjectivity. In some ways they know us better than we know ourselves. So ask those you trust, those who care about you, and ask yourself too. Then listen.
Unfortunately this is not a complete answer, since we can never know for certain which road to travel. In the end, we don’t know which life is best, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps this is what Victor Frankl had in mind when he said that the key is not learning to live with the absurdity of life, but rather learning to live with uncertainty.
So I’ll leave my readers with some advice I received long ago from Walt Whitman:
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.