Freedom to Be … Bored?

On Leisure and Ennui in a Lockdown

David Clay / 7.27.20

Starting around mid-June, people in our St. Louis suburban neighborhood began shooting off fireworks every night (illegality notwithstanding). Both firepower and frequency steadily increased until the climax on Independence Day. Some households had clearly spent hundreds of dollars apiece for the occasion, particularly on the heavy-duty artillery shell fireworks. The action was quite literally non-stop for hours. My two-year-old tried to put on a brave face (“I laugh at the fireworks!” she claimed from behind her fortified position in the garage), while my wife, a St. Louis native, commented that she had never seen anything like it.

Back in mid-June, Slate confirmed that the massive uptick in recreational explosives was a national phenomenon. The NYPD, for instance, received a 920% increase in fireworks-related complaints for the month of May. It’s not terribly difficult to figure out the cause. In the words of Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, “I think the general public, due to Covid, is just itching to do something.” In this case, that “something” was waging the War on Boredom with a vengeance.

It’s a war that’s been going on for a long time. Lucius Seneca, Stoic philosopher and contemporary of Jesus, noted that the Roman elite routinely fell victim to ennui upon retiring from public life:

When, therefore, the pleasures have been withdrawn which business itself affords to those who are busily engaged, the mind cannot endure home, solitude, and the walls of a room, and sees with dislike that it has been left to itself. From this comes that boredom, dissatisfaction, the vacillation of a mind that nowhere finds rest, and the sad and languid endurance of one’s leisure.

Over the last two centuries, industrialization has freed millions from subsistence occupations, granting them the possibility of leisure — and thus of “the sad and languid endurance” of it. Tedious physical labor has been the fate of most human beings who have ever existed, but only recently have non-elites (at least in the First World) regularly experienced the kind of boredom Seneca described.

A related and even more recent development is the widespread cultural ideal of “following your passion.” I say “ideal,” but it really feels more like a moral imperative. Passion, as both an object of intense desire and the inner drive that overcomes all obstacles in pursuit of that object, is seemingly necessary for a worthy life (cf. every sportswear commercial ever made).

More than once, I’ve been asked by a new acquaintance, “What are you passionate about?” or the slightly odd evangelical equivalent, “What’s your heart?” Either question elicits a sense of mild panic, lest I give an insufficiently passionate answer. To be deemed “passionless” is a verdict we moderns earnestly seek to avert. It smacks of aimlessness, of frittering away our precious time, or even of lacking purpose altogether.

Prolonged boredom, the signature symptom of passionless-ness, is therefore not just a heavy psychological burden — it’s also a fitting punishment, as if unused potential were rising up in judgment against the sinner. While the proverb, “Only boring people get bored” is false when taken at face value, we might begin to suspect that only boring (i.e., “passionless,” “unworthy”) people get mired down in boredom for extended periods of time.

It’s pretty easy to develop a Christian flavor of this attitude. Well-meaning preachers exhort us to a “passionate pursuit of Christ,” but our ideas of what “passionate” looks like are necessarily influenced by our culture (i.e., some mix of energy, charisma, excitement, focus to the point of obsessiveness, etc.). As a result, boredom can come to feel sinful as well as unpleasant. If secular folks can get so energized by their various temporal projects, so the narrative runs, then it’s downright shameful that we Christians yawn in the face of eternity. We are, after all, engaged in a cosmic war between God and Satan, with the souls of humanity hanging in the balance. How could we have the temerity to be bored?

Well, ask any veteran: War can be incredibly boring. But more to the point, I submit that boredom is a useful tool in God’s chest, particularly for us First World Christians. That’s because the contemporary endeavor of “justification by passion” is an attractive one. In our cultural climate, the soil of our souls can be quickly overrun by the weeds and thorns of various self-justification projects, including religious ones. Growing bored with those projects might just be the herbicide we need.

“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” (Isa 40:31), including the strength to say “no” to the bewildering variety of substitutes for God’s free promise of justification, his declaration that we are absolutely enough in Christ. Insofar as these stretches of boredom teach us how to wait on the Lord, they are his gracious work in our lives.

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3 responses to “Freedom to Be … Bored?”

  1. David Zahl says:

    This is so good.

    • David Clay says:

      David – thanks for reading! I hope you got some sleep on the Fourth.

      • David Zahl says:

        ha – I did. But only cause i’m not in a city. We talked about this article on the episode of the Mcast we just recorded.

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