Boredom, Finitude and Transcendence

Boredom is an odd phenomena. At a superficial level boredom seems to be quite self-transparent in that boredom emerges when we are unable to find something interesting to do. On this naive view of boredom, boredom disappears once we find something interesting to engage in. Boredom just signifies our momentary failure to find a worthwhile activity. But, this account of boredom seems all too simple. Contrastingly, it seems that boredom emerges because we tacitly find our own lives wanting in some regard. Boredom is then the emergence of the rejection of our present state of life and the apparent desire for “something more.”

This contrasting account of boredom I have provided seems plausible because when we are bored the things that normally would engage or interest us fail to do so; normally we might want to read a book or listen to an album, but these activities fail to excite us. Boredom therefore involves a change in perspective, as opposed to a lack of stimulation. In boredom, the self condemns its present interests as somehow wanting, and reaches out for something else.

But “the what” that the self reaches out for is typically undefined in boredom. When we are bored we are not longing to perform a particular concrete activity, we just know that the activities that present themselves as possibilities fail to call us forth or interest us. What we long for is “something more” or “something other”. Consequently, boredom is a state of anxiety and restlessness as much as one of quiet. In boredom we feel as though we should be occupied with something, but nonetheless fail to find anything compelling to be occupied with. We are anxious to find that something, but ultimately frozen in our ability to find that something, and understand what that something is.

In light of this understanding of boredom how should the bored person interpret their emotional state? On one account even if boredom represents a desire for something other, this desire is a merely a pathology. To want “something more”, but be unable to understand what that something more means, is irrational, as rational desire must have a concrete object in the world, as opposed to some amorphous object that can be neither understood or communicated. On this view boredom is to be interpreted as a pathological emotional state that we need to recognize in ourselves but maintain a distance from, because the desire underlying boredom is not something we cannot take any concrete steps towards satiating, precisely because we do not know what it is we long for. Let us call this the therapeutic view.

On a different account we should interpret boredom as a call for us to reflect on our lives and come to a better understanding of what we should pursue. The rationale behind this is that if we were truly satisfied with our lives we would not experience boredom, as boredom denotes anxiety and dissatisfaction. Thus, while it is true that the object of the desire for “something more” that lies behind boredom is ill defined, the fact that this object is ill defined does not negate that boredom provides a signal that are lives are somehow being improperly lived. Let us call this the philosophic view.

I find the philosophic view far more compelling than the therapeutic. While the therapeutic view rightly points out that the desire underlying boredom has no definite object it seems odds to say that a pursuit that has no definite object is irrational or pathological. It may be much more difficult to deal with a desire with an ill-defined object because there is no simple way of satiating it, but that does not mean that it is not worth pursuing.

Often our pursuits do not have a definite object, and it is often through these aimless pursuits that new aspects of our spiritual condition and life are revealed to us. For example, I am an amateur musician, but when I am at my most inspired in writing music I do not have the creation of a specific type of musical object in mind. Instead I am fully wrapped up in playing my instrument and it is through this engaged experimentation that a musical idea presents itself to me. It is only at that point that the musical object that I want to create becomes concrete in any substantial sense.

Similarly, when we reflect upon how we want to live and what we need to do to make our lives more rich and fulfilling, we engage in ponderous meditative thinking as opposed to thinking that simply designates and schedules means to a concretely defined end. We let our minds move freely and jump from thought to another, unconstrained by a goal dictated ahead of time. Any attempt to control this reflection and turn it into thinking that just selects means towards a given end fails to be reflection and becomes mere administration, or personal project management. If we are lucky after engaging in this meditative thinking we come to an understanding of what might be missing in our lives. It is only at this moment that the object that was once the merely transcendent, infinite or “something more” becomes concrete, comprehensible and something we can pursue in concrete terms.

Put slightly differently, when we become bored and reflect upon wanting something more, and try to understand what that something more could possibly mean, we are trying to better understand our own finitude and immanence by relating to the infinite or transcendent. In the play of meditative reflection we encounter the infinite and transcendent because we stop being subjects pursuing a definite object by giving up control of our thoughts and letting them go where they must go; at that point we become one with and inseparable from all other things. Sometimes after letting our thoughts go we are gifted with a revelation, but other times we are not, but giving up on this pursuit is to give up trying to properly understand and live with our own finitude, as the only way we have to understand our finitude is through relating it to its fundamental complement, the infinite, or transcendent. Consequently, it seems that the philosophic reading of boredom is superior to the therapeutic as the therapeutic involves giving up on trying to best understand and live with our finitude. In this way while the therapeutic might be a good strategy to avoid disappointment, it discourages us from living the best lives possible.

Lilly and James

Lilly was horrified by the state of the Canada. She thought to herself “it is 2013 and we still are dealing with poverty, homelessness, violence against women and damage to the environment.” It was clear to her that anyone who was sane and had a conscience would realize that it was necessary to devote time and energy to the task of ending these social evils. This is why she spent nearly all of her time outside of her job as a corporate lawyer working with various organizations to end these evils.

Lilly herself had never known poverty, homelessness or violence. She came from an affluent family and had been educated at Princeton. But her lack of experience with these evils did not render her anymore unfit to fight for these causes than anyone else. She saw the evil in the world, and she was merely responding to it.

While Lilly did not have many friends because of the time she invested in her job and activism, she was still very close with a girl she had gone to high school with named Marie. Marie had been trying to set her up on a date with an acquaintance of hers that Marie thought would be compatible with Lilly. At first Lilly was very hesitant to go on this date, as she was preoccupied with working with her causes. But after Marie had put forward the offer several times Lilly began to relent and reluctantly agreed to go.

The man Marie had set her up with was a project manager for a telecommunications company who was apparently quite charming. His name was James.

Lilly spoke on the phone with James and he seemed nice enough, so they decided to meet at Starbucks to have a coffee on Saturday afternoon.

Lilly arrived at the Starbucks a good fifteen minutes before they had been set to meet. So she began to sit down and think about what she was going to get to drink. She really wanted a Caramel Macchiato, but she also was interested in having a non-fat vanilla latte with an extra shot. As she saw the sign that said Starbucks uses fair trade coffee beans she found herself wishing that other stores would be like Starbucks and try to use their wealth to change the world.

When James arrived he introduced himself to Lilly, and stood awkwardly beside Lilly in the line. Within a few minutes they were able to put their order in. James ordered a Venti Chai Latte and Lilly ordered a Venti Caramel Macchiato. James offered to pay for Lilly`s drink; she was okay with this, but made it clear that he did not have to pay.

After they had received their drinks hey then sat down at a quaint table in the corner and began to chat.

The conversation began in a quite facile fashion as James and Lilly discussed their families and occupations. But when the subject turned to personal interests Lilly went on in great deal about all of the organizations she worked with and gave money to, and why this was so important to her. After this Lilly asked James what his interests were outside of work.

“Umm, I like to play video games, watch TV, and watch sports with friends. I don`t seem to be as serious as you about how I spend my spare time.”

Lilly then asked “Do you have any desire to assist with some cause or organization in your spare time? I know I would feel like my existence was hollow if I did not volunteer.”

James responded “I have no problem with people who volunteer and have a deep passion to help change the world, but I have no interest in it. I get way more fulfillment from watching sports and playing video games, then I would from volunteering.”

At this point Lilly knew that she had no future with James. While he seemed to be nice and intelligent how could she date someone who clearly was so apathetic, vapid and without empathy?

With a look of indignation on her face Lilly stated “how can you live with yourselves when you do not spend any time helping to protect those who are most vulnerable? There are people suffering out there while you waste your life playing video games.”

At this point James became furious. “I may not help the needy, but at least I am not a hypocrite. You are a corporate lawyer, the epitome of establishment values, and yet you act as if you were merely a pious soldier fighting against the evils of our social order. More than that, you carry around a Coach purse, wear Dolce & Gabbana glasses and your dress is made by Versace.”

Lilly replied “I don`t see how my job and what I wear makes me a hypocrite. I am entitled to nice things, but I just want everyone else to be able to have them as well because I have empathy and compassion for others. There is no tension between my clothes and job and my activism.”

James snidely remarked “your lack of self-awareness runs so deep you cannot even recognize it when confronted. You clearly don`t want to see an evil person like me again, so I am going leave.”

Lilly exclaimed “you accuse me of lack self-awareness when you are wasting your life on pointless activities but cannot seem to see it? Leave if you want, as you are clearly disgusted by me.”

A young woman named Rebecca was sitting at the table adjacent to James and Lilly. She was wearing a hoodie and some tattered jeans, and had a weathered copy of Beloved in her hands. She felt guilty, as she had been listening to James and Lilly`s entire conversation. But it was just too fascinating, and she could not stop herself from listening.

It was a bizarre, but all too common situation in Rebecca`s mind. James clearly was right about Lilly as Lilly could not see how her job and taste in fashion represented the values that reinforced the very social evils that she seemed to want to eliminate. But Lilly was clearly right about James. He was clearly vacuous, and superficial, as he honestly claimed that watching TV and playing video games brought him great fulfillment. It seemed that both were able to see towards the core of the others, but neither could see themselves.

For Rebecca this reinforced how illusive self-knowledge was. But she also realized how difficult it was to participate in this society while maintaining a genuine commitment to self reflection.