The Curse of Boredom

06 Jan 2010
OU Press

Man is bored. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on his entertainment and amusement. He pays enormous sums to anyone who can elicit a smile from him and make him forget his daily worries. What are these worries? Poverty, sickness, persecution, physical pain? None of these. His main worry is existence itself. He is dissatisfied with what he is doing, with his job, trade or profession. He hates the routine of getting up at 7, catching the 7:45 train, and arriving at the office, where one meets the same people and discusses the same affairs. He finds no joy in what he is doing; he wants to free himself from his daily obligations and activities. He resents the repetition, which is basically a natural phenomenon. He is the most miserable of creatures because he is confined to a cyclic existence which keeps on retracing its steps afresh; for he knows what he is going to do next and what is expected of him. He travels to far-off places, because he is tired of his hometown, with its familiar surroundings, and he engages in an incessant quest for new experiences and stimuli. Of course, all his attempts to break up the monotony and introduce change into repetitious existence are futile. For there is nothing in creation that can offer man something new, exciting and fascinating. He soon realizes that whatever he was looking for does not exist and he comes home, back to his old surroundings and duties. He chases a mirage that recedes endlessly upon his approach.

Basically, this boredom is the consequence of the primal curse with which paradisiacal man was burdened when he rebelled against his Master: “In the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” (Gen. 3:19). These words convey the idea of a life that is not only hated but joyless, the idea of work from which there is no escape, the curse of uniformity and boredom. Man is engaged in a steady rebellion against monotony and strives for change and renewal.

This curse of disapproval affecting man’s mode of existence manifests itself in a twofold way. Man hates the work in which he is engaged and seeks to free himself from the so-called bondage: one looks for an escape-route which would somehow bring him to the haven of an unfettered existence. This is exactly the illusion that entertainment tries to create for man, at least for a few short moments. Alternatively, man commits himself unconditionally to work in the hope that more accomplishments, greater successes, more fantastic conquests will fill one’s being with joy and contentment. One says to himself: I hate my work now, because the attainments are meager and I have not realized my life’s ambition, which is indefinable. However, when I shall succeed in fulfilling my destiny, I shall find happiness.

Man, because of a desire for freedom, becomes more and more enslaved. He would like to liberate himself from all the restrictions of a Parmenidean existence. He desires a limitless multitude of experiences and is indiscriminate about how he attains them. He seeks changes of circumstance, panorama, friends, and objects of enjoyment. What delighted him the day before is obsolete today, and what he indulges in now will lose its attraction with the rise of the morning star. New wishes, strange horizons, unique experiences, unknown ends, lure him from the security and warmth of his homestead. He becomes drunk with the endless opportunities which imagination paints before his mind’s eye and he does not want to survey the landscape twice from the same spot. What he wants is a different sunrise every morning.

Boredom is the wages of sin, of an existence overcome by aesthetic enthusiasm or trance. The heroic-adventurous attempt to adore existence as something delightful and great, and to surrender completely to beauty, is followed by the hollow feeling of bankruptcy and discouragement, a feeling that borders on morbidity. This state of affairs was brilliantly dramatized in Koheleth: “All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Boredom does not characterize the ethical experience but the aesthetic. This is what Adam and Eve found out after they ate from the Tree of Knowledge: “they opened their eyes and knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7), that their nude and senseless lives were full of absurdity and worthless.

Boredom is the admission of the meaninglessness of the aesthetic existence. Why? Simply because the aesthetic gesture is non-teleological. No vision awaiting realization addresses itself to Adam, no distance to be covered beckons to him. No promised land draws him on, impelling him to journey through desert sands and hot dunes. For Adam the morrow will not differ from the today, which, in turn, did not attain anything that had not been there yesterday. He does not travel from one position to another, heading toward a great destination, for he has none. The aesthetic experience is not a purposeful one; it is not eager to realize something; hence all the adventures and heroic poses come to naught. The aesthete looks back upon a past rich in experience but devoid of accomplishments, full of excitement but empty of meaning. Experience, however flamboyant and captivating, does not promote the idea of self-discovery, self-realization and self-redemption; experience thus withers like the flowers in the field. The excitement, though thrilling and rapturous, does not explain the rationale and goal of his existence, and it leaves him despondent and sad the morning after. Boredom is a feeling of disillusionment and teleological void.

Excerpted from Worship of the Heart by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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