Boredom

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 that’s our duty, or because we know that what’s new will become boring too?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve written about many times in this blog, (here, here, here, here, here, and here) famously thought that boredom was the essence of 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 later become boring?  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 too. Later I learned to play golf; once I played reasonably well, I found golf boring. (Although I still enjoy the exercise.) Does my boredom say something about me, or does it say something about these activities? Maybe 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 introductory college ethics classes for the one-hundredth time—literally—but if you master philosophical ethics to your satisfaction, then find another topic. Don’t 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 discover that someone is not as good or as interesting as you thought they were. What then? 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, you will settle for a bad partner and 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. (A theme explored in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose. As Sartre’ said we are “condemned to be free.”

Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves; for we are too close to ourselves. We don’t know if we deserve better friends, 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 Viktor Frankl had in mind when he wrote:

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.

I’ll end by leaving 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.

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4 thoughts on “Boredom

  1. I agree that learning is the one pursuit we cannot exhaust. Once we’ve dealt with fundamental needs (food, clothing, shelter, sex, and philosophy blogs on the Internet), we must satisfy our addiction to learning. Once we have reached the limits of our learning of one matter, we move on to something else. Videogames are cleverly designed to reveal their secrets at an even pace, so that the player always perceives that there’s something new to learn. Videogames are thus 21st-century opiates.

    My own limits to learning are apparently rather low, as I have skipped from physics to computers to game design to history to Erasmus to linguistics to human evolution to biology… and on and on.

  2. Other than pets, you’re not going to find companionship free of ulterior motives and other flies-in-the-soup.
    We want to have high expectations, even ‘shoot for the Moon’; but if expectations are excessively high, the Moon is shot to pieces.
    Age matters, as well. A child will be happy with a candy bar, but adults want more and More. Cars, planes, more cars, more airplanes and bombers. More helicopters and jet fighters…

  3. If he went from from physics to computers to game design to history to Erasmus to linguistics to human evolution to biology, then he’s probably a true polymath.

    I want to be less informed, more knowledgeable. Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce.

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