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Monday, December 26, 2005

Boredom

Boredom

In the book A Sort of Life Graham Greene tells how he has struggled, ever since he was very young, to fend off boredom. He once had a dentist extract ("but with ether") a perfectly good tooth for no better reason than that he was bored and this seemed like an interesting diversion. He tried several times to commit suicide and six times played Russian roulette, using a revolver with six chambers--a dangerous game, but not, heaven help us, boring.


Dorothy Parker was famous for her wit before she was thirty. She had great charm, a fine education, a fascinating kind of beauty, and many interesting friends. But she was utterly bored. She, too, thought of suicide, and was quoted in John Keats' book You Might As Well Live as saying:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.

Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Her life story seemed to me the exact illustration of acedia, or accidie, which is an old word for boredom, but a word that includes depression, sloth, irritability, lazy languor, and bitterness. "This rotten sin," wrote Chaucer, "maketh a man heavy, wrathful and raw." Poor Miss Parker had been so irritable and raw with people--she had treated even her friends unspeakably badly--that she spent her last years alone in a hotel in New York, her pitiful, neglected dogs and her liquor bottles almost her only companions.

Gertrude Behanna says, on her record, "God Isn't Dead," that she has come to believe that it is a real sin to bore people. When we stop to think about it, most of us would readily agree. But how many of us have thought of boredom itself, so long as it affects only ourselves, as a sin? The Bible speaks of joy as a Christian virtue. It is one of the fruits of the Spirit, and often we find that it characterizes the people of God whose stories we read in the Bible. The worship of God in the Old Testament was accompanied by the most hilarious demonstrations of gladness--dancing, shouting, and music-making. (This was to me one of the most impressive features of life in modern Israel when I visited there.)

Joy is not a word we use much nowadays. We think of it poetically as the opposite of sorrow, another word that does not often come into conversation. Both words represent experiences one does not normally have every day.

But I think we are mistaken. I think joy is meant to be an everyday experience, and as such it is the exact opposite of boredom, which seems to be the everyday experience (am I being overly pessimistic?) of most Americans. I get the impression that everybody is always hoping for a chance to get away from it all, relax, unwind, get out of these four walls, find somewhere, somehow, some action or excitement. Advertising, of course, has done a splendid job of creating in us greed for things we would never have thought of wanting, and thereby convincing us that whatever we have is intolerably boring. Attributing human wants to animals, we easily swallow the TV commercials that tell us that Morris the cat doesn't want tuna fish every day, he wants eight different flavors.

"Godliness with contentment is great gain.'' Those words were written a long time ago to a young man by an older man who had experienced almost the gamut of human suffering, including being chained day and night to a prison guard. Contentment is another word which has fallen into disuse. We think of it, perhaps, in connection with cows--the best milk comes from contented ones, doesn't it?--but it doesn't take much to content a cow. Peace and fodder are probably all it asks. We are not cows. What does it take to content us? How could Paul, after what he had been through, write as he did to Timothy?

C. S. Lewis, one of the most godly and civilized men I have ever heard of, exemplified what Paul was getting at. Lewis wrote that he was never bored by routine. In fact, he said, he liked it. He had what his anthologist Clyde S. Kilby called "a mind awake." Why should routine spoil it? Pictures of him show a joyful man. But he was not a man unacquainted with poverty, hard work, and suffering any more than Paul was. He knew them, but he knew, too, what lay beyond. "All joy," he wrote to a friend, "(as distinct from mere pleasure, still more amusement) emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."

Those wantings lie in the deepest places of our being, and they are for the kind of joy that, according to Lewis, is "the serious business of heaven." So we waste our time, our money, and our energies when we pursue so frantically the pleasures which we hope will bring us relief from boredom. We end up bored with everything and everybody. Work which can be joyful if accepted as a part of the eternal order and a means to serve, becomes only drudgery. Our pettiest difficulties, not to mention our big ones, are cause for nothing but complaint and self-pity. All circumstances not deliberately arranged by us look like obstacles to be rid of. We consume much and produce little; we get depressed, and depression is actually dangerous and destructive.

But there is another way. Paul made it perfectly clear that his contentment had nothing to do with how desirable his circumstances were. "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities." It is no list of amusements. How, then, did it work? It worked by a mysterious transforming power, something that reversed things like weakness and hardship, making them into strength and joy. Is there any chance that it will work for us? Is there for us, too, an antidote for boredom? The promise of Christ was not for Paul alone. "My grace is sufficient for you." It's a gift to be accepted. If we refuse it, nothing will be enough and boredom will be the story of our lives.

Copyright© 1988, by Elisabeth Elliot
all rights reserved.

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