Thursday, December 02, 2021

Is Your Faith Boring You?

The great mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Modern people don’t sit in rooms alone very well. They find it boring. And, in fact, being bored is one thing almost all of us instinctively hate. Particularly in our present day of social media, cell phones, portable games and constant mental stimulation, it seems to us that solitude and silence are indicators of something being terribly wrong. On those occasions when we find ourselves momentarily bored we immediately fumble for our phones or look around for some new distraction.

I suspect we are probably less adept than any previous generation at just sitting still and thinking.

The Need for Constant Stimulation

Yet despite all our best efforts to eradicate boredom, we don’t seem to be succeeding particularly well. As the general level of sensory stimulation in our environment goes up, so too does our need for stimulation: because like all drugs, the adrenaline rush of sensory overload also loses its effect over time. And there are high-end limits to what the human nervous system can tolerate.

The irony is that we don’t just still experience boredom, but our threshold for it continually lowers as we increase our mental stimulation levels. We feel bored more easily, and we find it harder to obtain sufficient inputs to stave it off. Something has to give.

Today, people report that boredom actually terrifies them. Let them be alone for a few minutes with their thoughts — in transit, at the cottage, on a quiet evening at home, or in those pre-sleep moments when they lie awake on their beds — and they become frightened, distressed and anguished.

But why should that be? Isn’t boredom a natural part of life? How realistic is it to suppose that every moment of life can be stimulating? Would it even be healthy if it was?

And what’s so bad about boredom anyway?

Work Boredom

Sometimes boredom can be an indication that something is wrong. It can be prompted by underemployment of the mind, or by a genuine lack of things worth doing; or it can even signal that life has really become empty and meaningless.

Media critic Jerry Mander has pointed out that boredom — tedium, repetition and meaninglessness — is a hallmark of many of our modern jobs. He thinks this has singularly bad effects on our psyches as well. In particular, the modern workplace produces fatigue by making intensive demands on a few of our sensory and emotional capacities, while forcing the shutting down of most others. The result is that though our workplaces are less physically demanding than those of a decade ago, they are ultimately more draining of our souls’ energies. He writes:

“If you have ever done physical exercise on a regular basis, you know that the result is not exhaustion, but stimulation. The more of it you do, the more you wish to do, and the more you can do. It is only after an extraordinarily long effort that one becomes depleted and needs rest. And then relaxation is sweet.”

Today, however, there is a kind of extreme emotional and mental fatigue that is induced without much physical exertion at all. He continues:

“In our culture, the chronically exhausted person is the one who sits all day, or the one whose physical work is chained to fixed patterns: assembly line, store counter, waiting on tables.”

Our minds are taxed in some ways, but lack the counterbalancing therapeutic effects brought by interruption for physical exercise or by diversity of task. Lots of people today claim to be “tired”, although our work has never been less physically taxing. Mander thinks this implies a high level of psychological frustration.

Healthy Boredom

Anyone who has ever been a child on a long, summer day has had the experience of wrestling with boredom. And then suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, comes the thought of an adventure, the notion of a treehouse or the seeking of a new friend. This boredom is not an indication that something is wrong, it’s an indication that something very right is on the horizon. It is the soil in which the creativity of a child’s imagination takes root. And it is these little achievements, not the watching of endless hours of television, which produce the cherished memories of childhood.

Children are not the only ones who need times when boredom is possible. Even as adults all of us have had the experience of being wracked by times of intense activity. Perhaps it’s the demands of work or a family crisis. The world becomes a blur racing past our eyes, and nothing makes sense except to keep doing whatever we can to survive. We say over and over, “I don’t know why this is happening to me.” Often it is not until much later that we gain some sense that we have grown through the experience, that perhaps not all was random, and that there might be a meaning we could assign to it all. We recognize more clearly the patterns of cause and effect, the choices available and the connection between where we were then and where we are now. But this sense of meaning almost never comes during the activity itself. It is almost invariably acquired in those precious moments of reflection when our energies are spent and the crisis has swept through, once we have a chance to slow the events down and play them over in our minds.

Despite our aversion to it, a period of reduced activity is generally the thing we most need. We need to stop and think. In fact, as professor Barry Sanders points out, boredom is often more than a forced rest, it’s also a “meditative opportunity”.* It is a calm amidst the storm. It is a prelude to future action, in which options are weighed, plans are formed, consequences are estimated, trouble is anticipated and meaning is ascribed. In short, it is the best chance we have to take mental charge of our own lives.

The Modern War on Boredom

But the boredom against which our society marshals all its resources today is not like healthy boredom. In our experience, boredom is what we feel the minute we are forced to slow down. We are already addicted to frantic activity, and live in cities abuzz with the comings and goings of vehicles and people, with the clamor of commerce and with the lunatic patter of the media — the internet, the social media ... No, in our society boredom is very rarely prompted by a lack of busyness.

In our society boredom is considered to be an absolute evil. We seem to believe that it is the signal that our lives have finally become as empty, drab and meaningless as we always feared they were. We fight off the feeling with a desperate urgency, gladly resorting to any activity that promises to lift its weight from our shoulders. We turn on the television. We pick up the phone. We warm up the computer. We switch on the radio, or clamp on the headphones, or dash for the mall.

Ken Myers, host of the Mars Hill tape series, calls our culture “a culture of diversion”. It’s a distinctive feature of our times that we can spend so much time pursuing distraction. We do more amusing and entertaining of ourselves than any society that has existed before. Responding unthinkingly to our taste for distractions, we have become so used to entertainment that we have come to regard it as a need, nearly of the magnitude of the need for food, air and shelter. The average home is filled to the rafters with various devices for staving off boredom, including TVs, radios, music players, games, telephones, computers and so on. Our battle to stave off boredom has taken on a desperate extravagance.

Amused to Death

Renowned media critic Neil Postman titled his best-known work on our culture Amusing Ourselves to Death. If the unthinking life can be regarded as a sort of early demise, then Postman is right. After all, the word “amuse” is a combination of two particles of meaning: “a-”, meaning “not”, and “muse”, meaning “think”. Thus “amusement” is that which enables us to escape thinking about things.

The cousin of this word is the word “entertain”. This one comes to us from the French entretenir, which is a composite of two words, one meaning “to hold” and “between”. Its literal implication is of being held between two states. If you’ve ever noticed the strange stare of the television-watcher, then you have some idea of what it means to be “entertained”. The state of being perpetually amused or entertained may not be quite like death, but it’s sure not a whole lot like life.

And that works.

… most of the time …

But what happens when it doesn’t work?

The Terror of Consciousness

You would think that given our devotion to distracting ourselves, we were finding in our entertainments some value that could effectively rival our experiences in the real world. But though they short-circuit our ability to reflect on our lives, to understand our situation and to prepare for the future, our distractions do not impart to us a sense of ultimate fulfillment. The minute we are without them, alone and quiet again, we feel all the more urgently compelled to silence our internal voices.

This is why, as Jerry Mander has observed, the modern mind desires nothing so much as “escape”. It is intolerable to listen to the internal monologue when that monologue reminds you of the bankruptcy of your existence. It’s just easier to shut the mind down — or at least distract it for a bit. Yet Mander adds, “psychiatrists report that an increasing number of people these days complain that they cannot quieten their minds.”**

Is that really so distressing? Well, researchers at U Virginia and Harvard recently looked into that question. They did a study in which they asked participants to sit quietly, by themselves, in a plain room, with no phones and no reading or writing materials, and just think for 6 to 15 uninterrupted minutes. They concluded that 50% found it unpleasant, 57% found it hard to concentrate, and 87% said their minds wandered.

Then researchers turned to the question of what people would do to avoid having to think by themselves. Again they put subjects in a room and asked them to think. But this time, they left them a set of electrodes capable of administering a small but painful shock. To their amazement, they discovered that 2/3 of the male subjects and 1/4 of the women opted to use the electrodes on themselves — often repeatedly — to escape the sensation of being under-stimulated. Researcher Erin Westgate summed up their experience:

“I think we just vastly underestimated both how hard it is to purposely engage in pleasant thought and how strongly we desire external stimulation from the world around us, even when that stimulation is actively unpleasant.”

Yet leading a meaningful life absolutely requires times of immobility and contemplation. We all need to think about who we are, where we are going, and what we are doing with our lives. We need time to make sense of it all — to fit the scattered events into the pattern of our lives, so as to make a “story” we can respect out of them. For how else will we gain any sense of coherence and progress in our personal lives?

Today, though, we are all deprived of meaningful contemplation, and most of us are unwilling to accept that times of important reflection are often accompanied — at least initially — by feelings of anxiety or boredom.

We just don’t sit still.

The Problem

Can we spend our lives running from thought, and still live the Christian life?

I don’t see how.

After all, the Christian life is founded in meditation, in our ability to sit alone in a room and commune with the Lord, reading, praying, thinking and systematically purging our lives in the water of the Word. It’s premised on obedience to God, and we cannot obey if we cannot sit quietly, commune with the Lord, meditate, reflect, submit and reconstitute our wills as his.

But what if our mental predispositions are all against this? What when we can’t sit still and listen? What when reading the Word is too painfully slow a process, prayer is too arduous, and when thinking about our own lives is too painful to endure? How then will we be able to listen and obey?

You see, ultimately, the war against boredom is not just a war against the sensation itself: it’s a war against thought, against contemplation, and against meaning. Hating solitude and quietness means giving up the search for answers to our deepest existential questions.

The Solution

Blessed is the person who meditates on the Law of God, says Psalm 1, and the one who does it day and night. The habit of solitude is the basic of the Christian life. The mindless chatter of our social environment hinders meditation. So as Christians, we all need to draw apart for times of solitude with God. Did not our Lord himself do this? How can we, as mere human beings, make do with less?

Here’s the acid test to see whether or not you’re living the Christian life: could you be living it without the Lord? If you were not in the word and prayer, communing with God every day, could you still go on as you are?

If you could, then you are perhaps living a decent life, a respectable life, or a socially approved life — but you are not living the Christian life.

The Christian life is the one that simply cannot be lived without daily dependence on God.

Even if it means risking a little boredom.

  * Barry Sanders, A Is For Ox, New York: Vintage, 1995, p. 43.
** Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, New York: Quill, 1978, p. 24


  1. God created this, 'Laniakea' our home and who knows what else and what are his current projects. Boredom would not be a concern, I think.

    Afraid of being bored in heaven? Read this book.

    "A Travel Guide to Heaven" by Anthony DeStefano

    Comment from internet I liked concerning boredom in heaven:

    "When you read a very interesting book, hours can go by without your noticing it. The beatific vision (seeing God face to face) is not only interesting; it is infinitely interesting. An eternity will go by without your noticing it."

    1. Good quotation, Q...I agree.

      I think our problem now is that we are NOT in that infinitely interesting future, but in a rather mundane present, and one sadly dominated by distractions and dulled by the weakness of our natural lack of interest in the spiritual. Right now, having a taste for Heaven can only be done by faith in the unseen, a faculty we find hard to exercise. Really, we are bored with our own lack of imagination, not with any inadequacy inherent in that future. Indeed, I suspect that if we could but glimpse it, we'd entirely lose our faculty of being bored with the spiritual, as well as our preoccupation with the distractions of present life.