Conservative commentators have long bemoaned the proliferation of “studies” fields in the university. Women’s and gender studies are well known, but now students can take courses in topics as unusual as “surf studies” and “fat studies.” Given all the boring lectures that undergraduates have endured throughout the ages, it’s amusing to note that this list now includes “boredom studies,” for which there is even a journal—the Journal of Boredom Studies. Anyone who has ever attended an academic conference will find some humor in its call for papers: “Submit a proposal for the 5th boredom conference.”
Much of this literature runs to the mundane or quantitative, but Kevin Hood Gary’s insightful book reflects his immersion in theology, philosophy, and literature. This is really a book about liberal education, as indicated by its subtitle: “Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life.” If boredom is the problem, Gary argues, then the solution is learning how to be leisurely, in the classical sense.
It might be slightly misleading to say that the book is about a problem and its solution. In the tradition that runs from Aristotle through Aquinas to Josef Pieper, leisure is not a solution to anything, but an alternative way of being in the world. In Pieper’s formulation, leisure “runs at right angles” to the practical pursuits of work and achievement.
Following Pieper, Gary argues that we have become slaves to work and amusement, even though neither pursuit is truly fulfilling. Money and honor, the traditional rewards of work, do not satisfy because money begets the need for more money and honor is fleeting. Even pleasure is tiresome after a while. Who, in the waning days of a vacation, has not itched to get back to a “normal” routine?In reaching the limits of work and pleasure alike we are prone to boredom, disillusionment, and depression. Gary proposes that leisure and liberal education can remedy these unpleasant states. I agree. But the escape from boredom may require a still more radical transformation of will, and that transformation may be something we cannot accomplish by ourselves. I shall say more about this below.
Gary identifies different kinds and degrees of boredom. He first considers “situational boredom,” a state of mind that comes and goes and is usually related to a lack of agency. Every parent has heard the complaint of a child—“I’m so bored. What can I doooo?”—and answers are always deemed insufficient, no matter how many or how creative. The cure comes only in being swept up by some external force or in independently determining a course of action. Just as a person cannot be talked out of serious depression or anxiety, rational arguments against boredom seldom avail. A person must take interest in something, which requires initiative and energy.
Adults, in contrast, are too busy to be bored in the ways we were as children. If we find ourselves in a long line at the DMV or the post office, we chalk up our bad moods to impatience or overcommitment, not boredom. True situational boredom requires a significant stretch of time with no obligations, chosen or otherwise, and no electronic devices. When, now, is this likely to happen?
Yet many adolescents and adults are prone to a different and more serious kind of boredom, which Heidegger described as “existential.” Existential boredom is “characterized by a disenchantment with life and a struggle to find meaning,” writes Gary. This is a serious, fundamental boredom—closely related to ideas of despair, acedia, and ennui—that does not go away when circumstances change but permeates all of life as an “unsettledness or aimless restlessness.” A person who is existentially bored wonders why ordinary activities (like eating or making the bed) are worth doing since they must be done again the next day, why long-term projects should ever be undertaken since they seem so overwhelming, and perhaps implicitly why life is worth living at all. Such a person is tired and indifferent. Boredom—with its utter lack of interest, its humid, midday grayness—is a constant, unwanted companion.
Gary guides his readers through philosophical, literary, and theological sources as context for the modern experience of boredom—from the meaninglessness described in Ecclesiastes through the aimless “flitters” of democratic societies in Plato’s Republic to Evagrius, a fourth-century Christian monk who analyzed acedia. Gary examines Kierkegaard’s two notions of despair—of possibility and of necessity—and wrestles with the concern that “boredom-avoidance schemes,” to borrow Walker Percy’s phrase, exacerbate the larger problem of existential boredom. Heidegger hoped that cultivating a sense of authenticity might offer a permanent escape from existential boredom, but Gary is skeptical. He also discusses the movie Groundhog Day and David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Shipping Out,” a damning indictment of the so-called leisure industry.