The deeper you probe human nature the more alike human beings from every class and country and age appear. Language and customs change, but the human condition remains the same. And yet, every age has its signature, a particular way the human condition manifests itself. Each age combines humanity’s perennial virtues and vices, pains and joys, and strengths and weaknesses in a unique way. What is the signature of our age? I admit that seeking an answer to this question is asking for superhuman knowledge, which no human being can attain. Nevertheless we cannot help but wish to understand.
I will leave it to others to describe the unique glories of our age. I am driven to understand its spiritual sicknesses. Every time I think about this question two concepts force their way to the top of my list: boredom and despair. Today I want to explain why I think contemporary culture, if it could sign its name, would write “the age of boredom.” I leave despair for another day.
Perhaps you are already objecting to my thesis: “We live in an age of frantic activity, of 27/7 city life, nonstop entertainment, and ever-present social media. How can you say that we live in an age of boredom?” To anticipate my full response let me say here that your objection actually supports my thesis. I argue that we live in the “age of boredom” because fear of boredom drives us to live the frantic lives you describe.
What is boredom, and why do I think it’s at the root of the spiritual illnesses that plague our age? Perhaps our first thought about boredom is of a feeling of having nothing to do, or more precisely, of having nothing that appeals to us at the moment. We feel restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. We need something with enough power to gather the scattered elements of our souls into one place, focus our attention on one task, and energize us toward one goal. The activity of this powerful object in gathering, focusing, and energizing our souls puts us in touch with ourselves; it enlivens our numbness and fills our emptiness. We feel alive again.
The nature and quality of our revived feelings depend on the nature of the object that overcomes the boredom. Some objects move us by awakening feelings of compassion or love or hope. Others call forth fear or anger or grief. Still others evoke greed or pride or lust. In every case boredom is overcome by placing (or finding) ourselves in the power of an object that possesses our souls in a way that unifies, energizes, and directs them. It seems that the soul doesn’t have the power to unify, energize, and direct itself. Hence boredom is the state of every soul not possessed by a power greater than itself. But not every power is truly greater than the human soul or worthy of its highest love.
We live in the age of boredom, not in the sense that everyone is always in the actual state of boredom, that is, the state of being restless, at a loss, decentered, numb, scattered, empty, and directionless. What I mean is this. Our age is dominated by fear of boredom. For many, much of what we do is designed with one purpose in mind: to fight off boredom for another day. In past ages boredom was a malady limited to the leisured classes. Most people were too occupied with digging a living out of the dirt and keeping their families clothed, warm, and housed to wake up Monday morning feeling aimless. Coping with disease, death, and war left little time to dwell on the emptiness within. But very few people living in the western world today are poor in the same sense that the twelfth-century French peasant or the eighteenth-century Russian serf was poor. We’re all members of the leisure class now! Boredom and fear of boredom have become pervasive problems.
The vast expansion of wealth in modern culture has allowed our spiritual poverty to come to the surface. When struggle for survival no longer possesses, unifies, and directs the soul, we face prospect of boredom. We look for other powers and goals to energize us and give us purpose. Many fight boredom by seeking exciting experiences. Fearing to be alone with their empty selves they seek ways to stimulate the feeling of being alive. They want to feel fear, compassion, triumph, surprise, delight, sadness or desire. And the entertainment industry’s main function is to invent ways of creating these feelings within our souls whenever we desire. We listen to music, watch movies, and go to concerts. We buy stuff. Protest stuff. And eat stuff. We hang out and hookup. We numb ourselves with alcohol and prescription drugs.
Modern life is a gigantic, multifaceted project designed to draw our attention away from the nothingness at the center of modern soul. The present age knows of no power great enough to gather all the soul’s passions and focus them on a goal worthy of all its love. And in my view, this absence is the cause of its sicknesses and the reason it deserves to be called “the age of boredom.”