Tag Archives: boredom

A Culture of Diversion for an Age of Boredom

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.”

The Godless Self and The Selfless God: God and the Modern Self (Part 4)

In parts 2-3 of this series we examined two common attitudes the modern self takes toward God: defiance and subservience. Now we will consider the third, indifference. In my view indifference is the most common and most tempting of the three.

People are not indifferent to God because, having thought about it, they decide indifference toward God makes the most sense. Such a stance would not be indifference at all but a kind of hostility. If you decide to ignore someone it’s usually because you want to hurt them. True indifference is not a conscious attitude but a habit of thoughtlessness. You are indifferent to one thing because you are totally focused on something else. You don’t think about it at all. And that is what I mean by indifference to God. We become so immersed in the practical affairs of life, in the search for pleasure, success and attention that we never raise our heads to heaven and turn minds to God to ask how it stands between God and us.

Let’s consider three common forms of indifference to God. The first arises as a byproduct of the search for pleasure, the second derives from the single-minded quest for success, and the third results from the all-consuming desire for attention. We can label them the esthete, the conformist and the celebrity.

1. Esthetes seek only pleasure, excitement, and sensual stimulation. When they are not experiencing it they are planning their next adventure; or they are bored. In sensual pleasure we lose consciousness of ourselves and God and become absorbed in experiencing the object of pleasure. To get the most pleasure out of dark chocolate or great music you must shut down all thought and close off the other senses. You have to let the experience take over completely. Everyone wants to have such experiences. They can be reorienting and renewing. But the esthete wants nothing else.

Esthetes are bored with themselves and their thoughts. They have no consciousness of God and desire none. They depend on external objects to fill their consciousness through sensual stimulation. Only in this way do they feel alive. In pleasure, they achieve the momentary illusion of power, of eternity in a timeless moment, and of oneness with the All. Above all, however, they escape the boredom and emptiness of themselves, they forget about finiteness and death, and they rid themselves of their persistent anxiety about the future. And they forget God or even the question of God. It never enters their thoughts that God himself may be the good they seek. But the godless self will never find rest until it finds the selfless God.

2. Conformists seek only success—social status, material possessions and other external signs of wellbeing. Since success is relative to what other people consider success, conformists always seek to look like others. They want nothing merely because of its usefulness or its beauty. They want it because others have it or don’t have it. They spend their life’s energy working for bigger houses, fancier cars, higher degrees, and better paying jobs. They seek to impress others, excite their envy and earn their approval. Like esthetes, they are bored with their empty selves, and they have no consciousness of God. They are only what they have, and their sense of self-worth is determined by how they measure up to others’ expectations.

Conformists never enjoy peace and contentment; they are always wrenched between pride and shame, disdain and envy. In such a mind there is no room for consciousness of God or self examination in awareness of God. It never dawns on conformists that what God thinks of us is the unchanging ground of our worth. But the godless self will never feel its worth until it finds the selfless God.

3. The celebrity seeks only attention. Celebrities exist only in the minds of admiring fans and exist only as long as people are thinking about them. A celebrity works to create and maintain an exciting, glamorous, super human identity in the minds of others and to associate this imaginary identity with themselves. The financial advantages to celebrity status are obvious but not central to the celebrity view of existence. Fans love celebrities for the stimulation they give to their imaginations; the fan enjoys living vicariously in an imaginary identity projected on the celebrity.

And the celebrity also enjoys the fanatical admiration of their fans for a similar reason. The irrational adulation of others gives momentary plausibility to a feeling of superior worth. Celebrities project false images and fans treat celebrities as if these images were real. Because celebrities live by attention alone, they are tempted to forget themselves and God in their frantic and futile efforts to hold the interest of their fans.

The celebrity view of existence is very seductive. Everyone desires the approval of others, and to receive approval we need to get noticed. And, if we have no other basis to accept ourselves and feel our worth, we may spend all our waking moments concentrating on getting attention. We may work so hard to create a false image of ourselves in other people’s minds that we forget to ask who we really are. We forget that we are known by God. The godless self will never feel accepted until it finds the selfless God.

The three attitudes display two common features, one negative, the other positive. (1) None of the three possesses awareness that God alone is greatest good of human beings and that his love for us in the true measure of our worth. If God alone were the object of our seeking we would be free from the desperate search for pleasure, the futile quest for success and the vain search for attention. (2) All three attitudes assume that our immediate desires and wants are reliable guides to what is good and what will produce happiness. By nature, everyone seeks pleasure, approval and attention. But when these natural inclinations are institutionalized in a culture of consumption, social ranking and celebrity, they begin to sound like the voice of God. But reason guided by faith points us higher, to God alone. If only the godless self could find the selfless God of Jesus Christ!

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 4 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Indifference: A Study in Thoughtlessness”).

 

Questions for Discussion

1. Explore the differences between indifference toward God and the previous attitudes of defiance and subservience. Are there any likenesses among the three?

2. How does the attitude of the esthete lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

3. How does the attitude of the conformist lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

4. How does the attitude of the celebrity lead to indifference toward God? Give examples.

5. Consider all three forms of indifference together and reflect on the how modern culture tempts us to live in indifference toward God and thoughtlessness about our relationship to God.

6. Name and discuss some strategies to overcome the temptation to love in indifference to God.

Next time we will examine the (false) image of God toward which the attitudes of defiance, subservience and indifference are directed.