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KierkegaardonBoredom,WhyCatListiclesFailtoAnswerthe

SoulsCry,andtheOnlyTrueCureforExistentialEmptiness
Themoreapersonlimitshimself,themoreresourcefulhebecomes.

BYMARIAPOPOVA

Boredomhasalongculturalhistoryandanadaptivefunctioninhumanlifeitservesa
vitalcreativepurposeandprotectsusbyhelpingustolerateopen-endedness;inchildhood,it
becomesthewellspringofimaginativeplay.Andyetweliveinaculturethatseemsobsessed
witheradicatingboredom,asifitwereEbolaorglobalpoverty,andreplacingitwitha
peculiarmodernformofactiveidlenessoozingfromourglowingscreens.

Nothinkerinthehistoryofhumanityhasdonemoretoshedlightonboththeproblemof
boredomanditsexistentialsolutionthanDanishphilosopherSrenKierkegaardaman
ofsuchtimelessinsightintothefundamentaldesiderataofthehumansoulthathewasable
toexplain,inthemiddleofthenineteenthcentury,thepsychologyofonlinetrollingand
bullying,thereasonfortheeternaltensionbetweenthemajorityandtheminority,andwhy
anxietyfuelscreativityratherthanstiflingit.
Inasectionofhis1843masterworkEither/Or:AFragmentofLife(publiclibrary),whichalsogaveusKierkegaardonour
greatestsourceofunhappiness,theDanishphilosopherdefinesboredomasasenseofemptinessandexaminesitnotasan
absenceofstimulationbutasanabsenceofmeaninganideathatalsoexplainswhyitspossible,todaymorethanever,to
beoverstimulatedbutexistentiallybored.

Bemoaninghowutterlymeaninglesshislifehasbecome,30-year-oldKierkegaardwrites:

Howdreadfulboredomishowdreadfullyboring;Iknownostrongerexpression,notruerone,forlikeisrecognized
onlybylikeIlieprostrate,inert;theonlythingIseeisemptiness,theonlythingIliveonisemptiness,theonlything
Imoveinisemptiness.IdonotevensufferpainPainitselfhaslostitsrefreshmentforme.IfIwereofferedallthe
gloriesoftheworldorallthetormentsoftheworld,onewouldmovemenomorethantheother;Iwouldnotturnover
totheothersideeithertoattainortoavoid.Iamdyingdeath.Andwhatcoulddivertme?Well,ifImanagedtoseea
faithfulnessthatwithstoodeveryordeal,anenthusiasmthatenduredeverything,afaiththatmovedmountains;ifI
weretobecomeawareofanideathatjoinedthefiniteandtheinfinite.
Inthisconception,boredombecomesindeedanemptinessofmeaningratherthanalackofdiversion.Infact,Kierkegaard
likelyinfluencedTolstoywhenthebelovedRussianauthor,inhisownexistentialquestformeaning,assertedthatforman
tobeabletolivehemusteithernotseetheinfinite,orhavesuchanexplanationofthemeaningoflifeaswillconnectthe
finitewiththeinfinite.

Kierkegaardalsoilluminatesourmoderncultofproductivityandourcompulsivebusynessasahedgeagainstthatdreaded
boredom:

Boredomistherootofallevil.Itisverycuriousthatboredom,whichitselfhassuchacalmandsedatenature,canhave
suchacapacitytoinitiatemotion.Theeffectthatboredombringsaboutisabsolutelymagical,butthiseffectisonenot
ofattractionbutofrepulsion.

Suchaconceptionexplains,forinstance,whyallthecute-catlisticlesspewedbytheBuzzWorthyestablishmentof
commodifieddistractionarehaplessinassuagingthesoulscrywhichis,afterall,thetaskofphilosophyinthefaceof
suchterrifyingboredomspringingfromalackofmeaning.AlanWatts,anotherprescientsageoftheages,termedsuch
futilestrategiesofdiversionorgasmwithoutrelease.Notingthatsuchmisguideddiversionisitselfthesourceof
existentialboredomwhichispartlyanacquiredimmediacyKierkegaardadds:

Itseemsdoubtfulthataremedyagainstboredomcangiverisetoboredom,butitcangiverisetoboredomonlyinsofar
asitisusedincorrectly.Amistaken,generallyeccentricdiversionhasboredomwithinitself,andthusitworksitsway
upandmanifestsitselfasimmediacy.
IllustrationbyEdwardGoreyfromTheShrinkingofTreehornbyFlorenceParry
Heide.Clickimageformore.

Kierkegaardlamentsthathabitandboredomhavegainedtheupperhandtosuchadegreeinsocietyandarguesthatthis
stemsfromhowdeeplyboredomiswovenintothefabricofourculturalmythology:

Adamwasboredbecausehewasalone;thereforeEvewascreated.Sincethatmoment,boredomenteredtheworldand
grewinquantityinexactproportiontothegrowthofpopulation.Adamwasboredalone;thenAdamandEvewere
boredtogether;thenAdamandEveandCainandAbelwereboredenfamille.Afterthat,thepopulationoftheworld
increasedandthenationswereboredenmasse.

Inaremarkatonceamusinganddisquietinginthecontextofmodernchildhoodrecently,whileplayingwithmyfour-
year-oldniece,shepressedherthumbintothecircleportionofmyarmtattooasonewouldpressadevicebutton,expecting
ittoperformsomeentertaininganimationandbeingvisiblydisappointedwhenitdidntKierkegaardoffersan
illustrativeexampleofthismythologysaftermath:

Howcorruptingboredomis,everyonerecognizesalsowithregardtochildren.Aslongaschildrenarehavingagood
time,theyarealwaysgood.Thiscanbesaidinthestrictestsense,foriftheyattimesbecomeunmanageableeven
whileplaying,itisreallybecausetheyarebeginningtobebored;boredomisalreadycomingon,butinadifferentway.
Therefore,whenselectinganursemaid,onealwaysconsidersessentiallynotonlythatsheissober,trustworthy,and
good-naturedbutalsotakesintoestheticconsiderationwhethersheknowshowtoentertainchildren.Evenifshehad
alltheotherexcellentvirtues,onewouldnothesitatetogiveherthesackifshelackedthisqualification.

[]

Itwouldbequiteimpossibletoprevailifonewantedtodemandadivorcebecauseoneswifeisboring,ordemandthat
akingbedethronedbecauseheisboringtobehold,orthataclergymanbeexiledbecauseheisboringtolistento,or
thatacabinetministerbedismissedorajournalistbeexecutedbecauseheisfrightfullyboring.

Andyetboredom,heargues,isourbasicconstitution:

Allhumanbeings,then,areboring.Theverywordindicatesthepossibilityofaclassification.Thewordboringcan
designatejustaswellapersonwhoboresothersassomeonewhoboreshimself.Thosewhoboreothersarethe
plebeians,thecrowd,theendlesstrainofhumanityingeneral;thosewhoborethemselvesarethechosenones,the
nobility.Howremarkableitisthatthosewhodonotborethemselvesgenerallyboreothers;those,however,whobore
themselvesentertainothers.

IllustrationbyMairaKalmanfromAh-HatoZig-Zag,amostunusualalphabetbook.
Clickimageformore.
Echoinghisownadmonitionagainstourbusynessasadistractionfromliving,headds:

Generally,thosewhodonotborethemselvesarebusyintheworldinonewayoranother,butforthatveryreasonthey
are,ofallpeople,themostboringofall,themostunbearableTheotherclassofhumanbeings,thesuperiorones,are
thosewhoborethemselvesTheygenerallyamuseothersattimesinacertainexternalwaythemasses,inadeeper
sensetheirco-initiates.Themorethoroughlytheyborethemselves,themorepotentthemediumofdiversionthey
offerothers,alsowhentheboredomreachesitsmaximum,sincetheyeitherdieofboredom(thepassivecategory)or
shootthemselvesoutofcuriosity(theactivecategory).

Sowhat,then,arewetodotoprotectourselvesagainstthegreatevilofboredom?Asitscounterpoint,Kierkegaardoffers
thevirtueofidlenessaconceptheusesmuchlikeweusethenotionofstillnesstoday,aqualityofbeingnecessaryfor
mindfulpresencewithourownlives.Kierkegaardwrites:

Idlenessassuchisbynomeansarootofevil;onthecontrary,itisatrulydivinelife,ifoneisnotboredIdleness,
then,issofarfrombeingtherootofevilthatitisratherthetruegood.Boredomistherootofevil;itisthatwhichmust
beheldoff.Idlenessisnottheevil;indeed,itmaybesaidthateveryonewholacksasenseforittherebyshowsthathe
hasnotraisedhimselftothehumanlevel.

Muchofthis,ofcourse,issemanticplay,furthercomplicatedbythemessinessoftranslation.ButKierkegaardsdistinction
betweenboredomandidlenessseemsrathersimilartoVanGoghsdistinctionbetweenthetwotypesofidlers.Implicitto
thepositivecounterpointoftheperilouskindisthefertilesolitudenecessaryforafulllife.

EchoingSenecastimelessadmonitionagainstcompulsivebusyness,headmonishesagainstourtendencytoconceiveoflife
asaseriesoftaskstobeaccomplishedratherthanmomentstobefilledwithliving:

Thereisanindefatigableactivitythatshutsapersonoutoftheworldofspiritandplaceshiminaclasswiththe
animals,whichinstinctivelymustalwaysbeinmotion.Therearepeoplewhohaveanextraordinarytalentfor
transformingeverythingintoabusinessoperation,whosewholelifeisabusinessoperation,whofallinloveandare
married,hearajoke,andadmireaworkofartwiththesamebusinesslikezealwithwhichtheyworkattheoffice.The
Latinproverbotiumestpulvinardiaboli[idlenessisthedevilspillow]isquitecorrect,butthedevildoesnotfindtimeto
layhisheadonthispillowifoneisnotbored.Butsincepeoplebelievethatitismansdestinytowork,theantithesis
idleness/workiscorrect.Iassumethatitismansdestinytoamusehimself,andthereforemyantithesisisnoless
correct.

IllustrationforAliceinWonderlandbyLisbethZwerger.Clickimageformore.

Ourcompulsivebusynessalsomanifestsitselfinhowweattempttorelieveourselvesofboredomastrategyheexplains
throughtheagriculturalmetaphorofcroprotationdonebadly,whichconsistsincontinuallychangingthesoil,asortof
graspingaftertheboundlessinfinityofchange.Kierkegaardexplainsthefailureofthisboredom-alleviationmethod,
whichtwentieth-centurypsychologistswouldcometotermthehedonictreadmillofconsumerism:
Thisrotationofcropsisthevulgar,inartisticrotationandisbasedonanillusion.Oneiswearyoflivinginthecountry
andmovestothecity;oneiswearyofonesnativelandandgoesabroad;oneis[wearyofEurope]andgoestoAmerica
etc.;oneindulgesinthefanaticalhopeofanendlessjourneyfromstartostar.Orthereisanotherdirection,butstill
extensive.Oneiswearyofeatingonporcelainandeatsonsilver;wearyingofthat,oneeatsongold;oneburnsdown
halfofRomeinordertovisualizetheTrojanconflagration.Thismethodcancelsitselfandisthespuriousinfinity.

Thishecounterswiththecorrectstrategyamethodakintomindfulnesstraining,whichemergesagainandagain,across
everymajorspiritualtraditionandsecularschoolofthought,asourmostpromisinggatewaytohappiness.Kierkegaard
writes:

ThemethodIproposedoesnotconsistinchangingthesoilbut,likepropercroprotation,consistsinchangingthe
methodofcultivationandthekindsofcrops.Hereatonceistheprincipleoflimitation,thesolesavingprincipleinthe
world.Themoreapersonlimitshimself,themoreresourcefulhebecomes.Asolitaryprisonerforlifeisextremely
resourceful;tohimaspidercanbeasourceofgreatamusementWhatameticulousobserveronebecomes,detecting
everylittlesoundormovement.Hereistheextremeboundaryofthatprinciplethatseeksreliefnotthroughextensity
butthroughintensity.
IllustrationbyMauriceSendakfromOpenHouseforButterfliesbyRuthKrauss.
Clickimageformore.

Amasterworkoftimelessinsight,Either/Orisinfinitelyrewardinginitstotality.Complementitwithlegendary
psychoanalystAdamPhillipsonwhythecapacityforboredomisessentialforafulllifeandHowtoDoNothingwithNobody
AllAlonebyYourself,awonderfulvintagefieldguidetojoyfulsolitude,thenrevisitKierkegaardonwhyhatershate.

PublishedJanuary14,2015

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/14/kierkegaard-boredom-idleness-either-or/

www.brainpickings.org