Bored to life
Midsummer. American parents of school-aged kids know this as the season of boredom. The summer holiday’s novelty has worn off. Many fun things so anticipated during the final weeks of school have been enjoyed. Free time has become routine. Parents are informed that there’s “nothing” to do. This provokes parental eye-rolls with statements to the effect, “We wish we had the luxury to be bored.”
But the truth is, parents too experience boredom. It’s just that in our phase of life, boredom doesn’t take the form of “there’s nothing to do.” We’re constantly churning through a never-ending list of responsibilities, obligations, tasks, and commitments. There’s always more to do than we can get done. Our boredom takes the form of a loss of the joy of wonder.
Whatever boredom looks like at any particular moment, we need to pay attention to it. It’s telling us something important.
What Is Boredom?
What is boredom? Very simply put, boredom is disinterest. It’s the condition of finding some thing or someone or some subject or some task or some event or perhaps most everything uninteresting.
“Boredom is not the opposite of busyness; it’s the opposite of interest.”
For example, when one of my kids says, “I’m bored; there’s nothing to do,” they don’t literally mean there’s nothing to do. They mean, “I can’t think of anything to do that interests me.” Which is why they tend not to make this statement to me because they know I’m likely to provide them something to do — something they’re not particularly interested in doing.
This is why we can be very busy and very bored at the same time. Because boredom is not the opposite of busyness; it’s the opposite of interest. It’s not a “things to do” problem; it’s an interest problem. Which means it’s a joy problem.
Is “Bored” the Same as “Lazy”?
You are unlikely to find the word “bored” in your English Bible (unless it’s referring to drilling a hole in something). But you will find words like “slothful” (Proverbs 12:24; Ecclesiastes 10:18; Matthew 25:26), “sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6; 21:25), “lazy” (Titus 1:12), and “idle” (Proverbs 19:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:11), and the Bible makes it clear that these are sinful character traits.
So, is being bored the same thing as being slothful, sluggardly, lazy, or idle? Not necessarily. There are many reasons we might feel disinterest: sleep deprivation, illness malaise, depression, grief, disappointment, etc. But it might be a momentary indulgence in slothfulness, or it might even be slothfulness wearing boredom as a disguise.
The Wrong Treatment
In the common American English vernacular, “bored” is generally understood as a temporary experience of disinterest. The degree to which it’s sinful depends on what’s fueling it. But everyone experiences boredom with some regularity and, though we find it unpleasant, it doesn’t typically alarm us.
But we think of “slothful” or “lazy” as something different — persistent, habitual negative character traits, which we would not attribute to everyone and which we see as damaging, even dangerous, to the lazy person and those he affects (this is the biblical understanding too). For example, a worker might be bored (disinterested) in his work, yet still work diligently. But a worker who’s lazy will work negligently, to the detriment of everyone else.
“One great tragedy of selfishness is that the more we yield to it, the less capacity we have to enjoy anything else.”
However, diagnosing the difference can be complicated. A lazy person very rarely is honest enough to categorize himself as lazy and is more likely to refer to his experience as being “bored” (and the things he wants to avoid doing as “boring”). This shows that boredom doesn’t carry the same negative moral implications as laziness — at least in American society. But used this way, it’s laziness wearing boredom as a disguise.
The point of this dissection of boredom and laziness is essentially this: we need an accurate diagnosis in order to effectively treat a disease. Boredom and laziness are not necessarily the same problem. We need to understand what boredom is telling us so we don’t fight boredom with the wrong treatment.
What Boredom Is Telling Us
So, what is boredom telling us? When we feel bored, we are essentially asking the question, “Where’s the joy?” Boredom is what our hunger for happiness feels like when we’ve momentarily lost sight of or confidence in what will satisfy it. And as such, it is a warning and an invitation.
Think of boredom as a dashboard warning indicator that starts dinging. Something has caused your interest level to run low and it’s draining your joy. What is it? Perhaps it’s a physical or emotional health issue that needs care. Perhaps you’re being tempted to indulge laziness. Or perhaps, even more seriously, you’re indulging an idol of selfishness and you’re trying to drink from “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
One of the great, appalling tragedies of selfishness is that the more we yield to it, the less capacity we have to enjoy anything else — anything other than what we believe caters to our narrow personal preferences, enhances our personal reputations, and advances our personal interests. Whatever is making our boredom indicator ding, it is God’s merciful warning that something important requires our attention.
But we can also think of boredom as God’s gracious invitation for us to explore and discover the spectrum of joy in the love for us that he has laced through the height and depth and length and breadth of his special and general revelation. If boredom is an expression of our happiness hunger, God extends to us this great invite:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1–2)
An Infinite Supply of Interesting
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person” (Heretics, 13). When we feel disinterested, and it’s not a health issue or a more complex sin issue, we should not believe the deceptive mood that we’ve exhausted what interests us. We should assume we’re mentally and imaginatively out of shape, and we need to work out some more.
“Don’t just feed boredom the junk food of easy entertainment and stimulation.”
The Bible is an inexhaustible treasure trove of truth, and the world and people around you are unfathomable oceans of wonder that God has given you to explore. Let boredom tell you the same thing that getting too winded on too few stairs tells you: you need to increase your capacity. Yes, it will take some hard work. Everything that’s worth anything always does.
Listen carefully to your boredom. It’s telling you something important. It’s a hunger for happiness. Don’t just feed it the junk food of easy entertainment and stimulation or the malnourishing diet of selfish pursuits — unless slothfulness, chronic discontentment, and spiritual lukewarmness (or worse) is what you’re aiming for. If you heed boredom’s warning, it will show you your broken joy cisterns. If you accept its invitation, it will lead you to where the true fountains of joy are found.