Bored Out of Our Minds

You will not be bored reading Kevin Hood Gary’s Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life. The slender book delivers on the title’s ambitious promise. How do we cope with boredom? And what is the “optimal” way to address boredom? Boredom, Gary argues, is a painful condition that has something to teach us if we will attend to it. The key to coping with boredom is to practice leisure so that we may confront boredom at its source—within ourselves rather than our environments. The good news is that we can change how we respond to boredom in meaningful ways. The immediate problem, however, is that the ways in which we have been taught to cope with boredom conceal from us the extent of our despair.

Why Boredom Matters is one of those delightful books in which the author seamlessly draws from thinkers from across multiple disciplines such as education, theology, philosophy, literature, and pop culture. Søren Kierkegaard, Walker Percy, David Wallace Foster, Leo Tolstoy, Robert Louis Stevenson, John Dewey, Albert Bormann, Simone Weil, Josef Pieper, St. Benedict, Groundhog Day, and The Karate Kid all contribute to a richer understanding of boredom. Get the book if only to read Gary’s analysis of Groundhog Day and The Karate Kid.

What’s really unique about Gary’s argument is that he grounds his analysis of boredom within the context of how educators in middle school and high school are taught to handle bored students. Boredom is the root of several destructive behaviors such as troublemaking, half-listening, engaging in trivialities, and addiction. The book has the very practical aim of linking everyday concerns about classroom management and instructional delivery to existential questions. Gary takes care to engage with educational literature on boredom and to offer ways in which his leisure reforms can be introduced into a curriculum.

Boredom, as Gary argues, is more than a classroom management or instructional delivery problem, but a moral problem. The ways in which we have been taught to respond to boring situations evade the self-reflection that is needed to confront boredom.

The two approaches to the problem of boredom in the classroom are avoidance and resignation. Avoidance is the attempt to “outrun” boredom through engagement, stimulation, and novelty. The actual importance or significance of the course material learned is of secondary concern, if that. As students tire of one mode of educational delivery, it is incumbent on educators to seek out ever-new and refined techniques to engage the fleeting attention of their students. Chasing diversion after diversion to hold onto the fickle attention of students, moreover, promotes the “unrealistic expectation that life should be endlessly stimulating.” Students learn to discount the everyday, mundane experiences of life as boring. Avoidance becomes an endless “struggle to appease a voracious ego” that consumes and discards amusements as soon as the “charm” wears. Compared to the steady stream of “content” available within easy reach of a cell phone, educators cannot compete.

The second way of coping with boredom is resignation. Students must be prepared to accept boredom as an “inevitable part of life.” Students are taught to not question boredom, but to submit to it. Gary’s use of the word “resignation” is well-chosen. It connotes giving up or the abdication of an office or responsibility. Boredom must be endured for the sake of learning relevant course material and skills to survive in “the real world.” Relevance is subordinated to the perceived needs of the state. Gary claims that this “hyper-pragmatic” approach arose from the “educational arms race” that mirrored the space race. From the National Defense Act of 1958 to No Child Left Behind to Common Core, essential subjects are those deemed useful for America’s defense or workforce. Concomitant to enduring boredom in the classroom, Gary astutely observes, students are trained to endure ugly buildings, cinder-block walls, and numerous procedures. School environments of this now-traditional pedagogy encourage docile submission to those in authority.

Both boredom coping mechanisms, Gary argues, serve the interests of our consumer, technology-driven materialistic society. Americans are trained to be useful, compliant worker-bees for corporate America. When not at work and during their “free time,” Americans treat boredom as a condition to be alleviated through the marketplace in which they can buy the latest amusements and shiny new things.

One curious neglect in Gary’s discussion is how the bored self views other people. Gary lists numerous ways in which boredom is bad for the self and leads to self-destructive behaviors such as risk-taking, gambling, or over-eating. I say it is a curious neglect given Gary’s familiarity with Walker Percy who offers much reflection on how boredom distorts our relationship with other people. Percy catalogues the ways the bored self sees other people merely as objects—objects of amusement, objects for sexual pleasure, objects for mastery and violence—but not as other selves like oneself.

Percy’s diagnosis of the dangers of boredom draws out graver social and political consequences. The bored self becomes the disappointed self who is “possessed by the spirit of the erotic and the secret love of violence.” Displaced and disappointed with the high-gloss promises of experts and marketers to deliver the self from the perceived drudgery of ordinary life, the bored self seeks refuge in sex and violence. Sex and violence, Percy explains, “dispense” us from the everyday rut and routine of job, family, and community. War is especially appealing to the bored self who longs to feel the purpose and intensification of community that comes with subordination of human life to the calculus of necessity. Rather understatedly, Percy laments how “unlucky” it is that this should happen in a nuclear age.

Nuclear weapons are interesting. And they are back in the headlines undoubtedly generating clicks, revenue, and buzz. The excitement that surrounded Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February has long subsided. With fresh speculation that there’s a live possibility that Putin might order the use of a tactical nuke or two, the war in Ukraine has become more interesting. As said in The Moviegoer, it is not that people fear that “the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.”

The bored self is so stuck in the rut of the self that the prospect of nuclear war and the possible death of thousands or millions purchases some respite from everyday despair. The nonchalance with which so many have pushed for escalation in Ukraine reveals detachment from the care and superintendence of political life that is the responsibility of all citizens. Imperfect as our present peace and political life may be, the secret love of violence encourages us to discount them on account of their imperfection and long for war as the means to start over or, at least, to shake things up.

Within the self are the twin poles of the infinite and the finite around which the bored self bounces back and forth like a ping pong ball.

What is the optimal way to respond to boredom? Gary considers but finally rejects what he terms “the quest for authenticity” as offered by thinkers such as Heidegger and Camus in which the bored self overcomes the meaningless of life by fashioning an authentic self. Gary offers several worthwhile arguments, but observes, quite rightfully, that the popularization of authenticity is too easily co-opted by consumerism. It is altogether too easy for marketers and influencers to say that the surest way for you to “do you” or to “be yourself” is to buy whatever they are selling. Authenticity sells, but it also does not avoid despair.

Instead, Gary turns to Kierkegaard to show that boredom is not passive, but rather a condition to which we consent. Boredom is a “mis-relation within the self.” Within the self are the twin poles of the infinite and the finite around which the bored self bounces back and forth like a ping pong ball. The trick to “self-synthesis” is to strike a balance (and continually recalibrate) between the sea of infinite possibilities and the barren desert of no possibilities.

Fidgeting, twitching, and twisting are all examples of the physical restlessness that attend boredom. When we’re bored, we desire movement and will engage in trivial activities in order to avoid sitting still or engage in one task. Just so, there is an “existential fatigue” that arises within the self once a diversion is exhausted of its “charm.” If we can learn to recognize the moment, restlessness within the self is an opportunity to reflect and to emerge from our despair. As Gary argues, we need an education that inculcates leisure in order to move in a purposeful direction.

Leisure is the optimal response to boredom. But Gary emphatically does not mean leisure as typically understood associated with a liberal arts education. At the beginning of the book, Gary explains that there are two leisure traditions in which the West. Gary rejects the Greek tradition as elitist. Only the wealthy had the time or resources to pursue knowledge for its own sake. Instead, Gary embraces the Hebraic tradition rooted in a required day of rest for everyone. Gary praises the Benedictine tradition in which leisure unites both the study of the mind (reading the Bible or philosophy) and the manual tasks of the body (washing dishes or gardening).

But by the end of the book, Gary argues that elitism of the liberal arts is baked in much deeper than affordability. The liberal arts distinguishes unequal intellects. Leisure must be “available to everyone…the gifted and not-so-gifted.” Gary leans on Albert Borgmann’s concept of “focal practices” as a way to make leisure accessible to all. A focal practice is a way of deepening our attention “in a sustained way, to one thing, overcoming the temptation to move from one thing to the next.”

For example, cooking and walking are activities that engage the body and the mind in the everyday tasks at hand. When we take a walk, we focus on the wind on our face and the feeling of the ground under our feet. When we cook, we attend to the rhythm of cutting carrots and onions. Leisure is as much engaging the body as it is the mind. We engage the mind by focusing on what the body is doing or where it is, like talking a walk or being near a hearth. In so doing, mundane, everyday activities become opportunities for being more receptive to the mystery of existence.

There is much to be said for recovering a spirit of studious attention to tasks at hand. It is good advice. Gary is right that leisure should not be abstracted from the body. However, Borgmann’s “focal practices” are too close to fruity-tutti Rousseau who argues in Reveries of the Solitary Walker for the sweet sensation of existence while lying in a boat drifting. The attempt to marry study and labor in order to make leisure accessible leaves little room for study separate from labor. It is not possible to have the spirit of Mary while being a Martha. Gary praises the Hebraic leisure tradition for its accessibility to all, but he forgets that the commandment is to rest. The posture of rest, study, and prayer requires mindful attention to the body. Necessity requires that we labor, but human beings are free in some meaningful way from work. Everyone—even of the meanest intellects—is made for pursuing the truth and reflection on God.

Here’s the bottom line: if you have influence over the curriculum for teachers, include this book. Alternatively, use Why Boredom Matters along with some Kierkegaard, Walker Percy, Pascal, Aristotle, and Groundhog Day for a course on Boredom Studies.