In a world with constant connection — to the internet, social media, television, 24-7 shopping, movie theaters, video games, texting, and everything else — millions are still bored. Classical Christianity has an answer to this conundrum, and it isn’t just exercise or the need to enjoy the outdoors.
A British author, Sandi Mann, actually argues that boredom is a good thing. The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good says boredom pushes us to discover new things, and performs a vital function in a healthy life that way. Christian authors have long warned about acedia for the same reason, arguing that boredom isn’t an impulse to try new things but a longing of the soul, starved of its natural — or rather its supernatural — food.
But before we get to that deep theological idea, we need to discuss what boredom is. Mann hits the nail on the head pretty well.
As Mann wrote in Britain’s The Guardian, “Up to half of us are ‘often bored’ at home or at school, while more than two-thirds of us are chronically bored at work.” Indeed, even the things we turn to for entertainment often end up boring us. “TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. We spend our weekends at dull parties, watching tedious films or listening to spouses drone on about their day. Our kids are bored — bored of school, of homework and even of school holidays.”
There are a number of explanations for our ennui. This, in fact, is part of the problem – we are overstimulated. The more entertained we are the more entertainment we need in order to feel satisfied. The more we fill our world with fast-moving, high-intensity, ever-changing stimulation, the more we get used to that and the less tolerant we become of lower levels.
Mann warns that “research suggests that chronic boredom is responsible for a profusion of negative outcomes such as overeating, gambling, truancy, antisocial behavior, drug use, accidents, risk taking and much more. We need less, not more, stimulation and novelty.”
Boredom is the impulse to reject the things that fill our lives — the desire to brush aside things we once found interesting and attractive, because they fail to satisfy us. It is largely irrational, a kind of involuntary vomiting of the things we pursue to give us joy and meaning in our various lifestyles. But it also confuses us, because it feels counterintuitive. How could the things we enjoy feel so empty to us?
Joseph Pieper, in his book The Four Cardinal Virtues, defines acedia as “the dreary sadness of a heart unwilling to accept the greatness to which man is called by God.” It is less a matter of entertainment and more a matter of how we understand human nature and the goal of humanity.
If there is no real meaning to the universe and humanity, then we might as well just entertain ourselves, fiddle while the world burns. If men and women determine their own meaning, we are free to pursue anything, but why are we never satisfied with the options open to us?
Next Page: The Christian view of the heroic and satisfying purpose of mankind.
One of the greatest arguments for Christianity is C.S. Lewis’ articulation of the desire for heaven. Heaven isn’t just sitting on clouds playing harps and singing — it’s the individual fulfillment of the unique, central desire in every soul. Here is the amazing passage from The Problem of Pain:
Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something which you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it — tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.
But if it should really become manifest — if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself — you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say “Here at last is the thing I was made for”. We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.
Echoes of this ultimate desire pervade literature, from its earliest beginnings to the spiritual ennui of even Existentialist writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and Friedrich Nietzsche. The central desire of each soul is unique and fundamental to each personality. Pursuing this good is the very thing we were made for, according to Christian theology — our inner desire will be satisfied by enjoying the presence of God forever.
But God doesn’t just want us to enjoy Him — He wants us to be more like Him, too. Not through our own power, trying to “make ourselves like Gods,” but by surrendering to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Humility, virtue, and love for others: these things make us greater than we are.
In the same book, C.S. Lewis explains that each person is “not metaphorically, but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” This not only explains why we find our entertainment so banal, but also why life is difficult, even for faithful Christians.
Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life — the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child — he will take endless trouble — and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient.
One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and re-commenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumb-nail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed us for a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.
Boredom is more than just immersing ourselves in entertainment, it is denying the fundamental value God has given us, and His mission to make us into something greater. The spiritual ennui we feel can only be answered by spiritual purpose. The answer to boredom is not new experience, but acceptance of the heroic and liberally awe-inspiring calling for which each of us were made.
This rich understanding of human nature answers our natural longing for something more — a desire which cannot truly be satisfied except in the knowledge and love of God and the utter transformation of sinful man into the justified, sanctified, and glorified version. Christ promises so much more for us than mere entertainment. Perhaps we should just accept it — only then can the great adventure begin.