Boredom is endangered. Streams of dopamine have pushed it past Wi-Fi range. If, as Bertrand Russell suggested, we should all be more idle, we must learn to confront boredom head on. Thankfully, poet Joseph Brodsky’s essay “In Praise of Boredom” (this collection) dissects boredom in a moving reminder of its importance.
Known under several aliases-anguish, ennui, tedium, doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, accidie, etc.-boredom is a complex phenomenon and by and large a product of repetition. It would seem, then, that the best remedy against it would be constant inventiveness and originality. That is what you, young and newfangled, would hope for. Alas, life won’t supply you with that option, for life’s main medium is precisely repetition.
A catalogue of familiar answers to boredom
Potential haves, you’ll be bored with your work, your friends, your spouses, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture or wallpaper in your room, your thoughts, yourselves. Accordingly, you’ll try to devise ways of escape. Apart from the self-gratifying gadgets mentioned before, you may take up changing jobs, residence, company, country, climate; you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons, drugs, psychoanalysis.
In fact, you may lump all these together; and for a while that may work. Until the day, of course, when you wake up in your bedroom amid a new family and a different wallpaper, in a different state and climate, with a heap of bills from your travel agent and your shrink, yet with the same stale feeling toward the light of day pouring through your window. You’ll put on your loafers only to discover they’re lacking bootstraps to lift yourself out of what you recognize. Depending on your temperament or the age you are at, you will either panic or resign yourself to the familiarity of the sensation; or else you’ll go through the rigmarole of change once more.
On the nature of boredom
In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck of dust a swirl in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tacks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.
Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open. For boredom speaks the language of time, and it is to teach you the most valuable lesson in your life-the one you didn’t get here, on these green lawns – the lesson of your utter insignificance. It is valuable to you, as well as to those you are to rub shoulders with. “You are finite,” time tells you in a voice of boredom, “and whatever you do is, from my point of view, futile.”
The privilege and lesson in boredom
This is what it means – to be insignificant. If it takes ‘Will-paralyzing boredom to bring this home, then hail the boredom. You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joy, fears, compassion. For infinity is not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom, at least, tells you that much. Because your boredom is the boredom of infinity.
Respect it, then, for its origins – as much perhaps as for your own. Because it is the anticipation of that inanimate infinity that accounts for the intensity of human sentiments, often resulting in a conception of a new life. This is not to say that you have been conceived out of boredom, or that the infinite breeds the finite (though both may ring true). It is to suggest, rather, that passion is the privilege of the insignificant
So try to stay passionate, leave your cool to constellations. Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom. Another one, of course, is pain-physical more so than psychological, passion’s frequent aftermath; although I wish you neither. Still, when you hurt you know that at least you haven’t been deceived (by your body or by your psyche). By the same token, what’s good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of the meaninglessness of your own, of everything else’s existence, is that it is not a deception
Finally, should TV and action films not do the job, Brodsky recommends
Yet should those remedies fail, let it in, “fling your soul upon the growing gloom.” Try to embrace, or let yourself be embraced by, boredom and anguish, which anyhow are larger than you. No doubt you’ll find that bosom smothering, yet try to endure it as long as you can, and then some more. Above all, don’t think you’ve goofed somewhere along the line, don’t try to retrace your steps to correct the error. No, as the poet said, “Believe your pain.” This awful bear hug is no mistake. Nothing that disturbs you is. Remember all along that there is no embrace in this world that won’t finally unclasp.