By Noadia Steinmetz-Silber
I take it that the feeling of boredom is something like the feeling of having nothing to do, or having nothing interesting to think about, the feeling of facing a sort of mundanity of life. What some might want to argue is that to be bored is an issue because we can always find something to do. It may be true that we can always find something to do. I think that an important question to ask, however, is: what are the conditions that may lead one to be bored in the first place. What sort of way are we understanding and engaging with reality such that reality may present itself to us as mundane? Through this lens, I want to suggest that boredom allows us to not merely find ways to escape it. Rather, boredom offers us the opportunity to use our imagination to enter a way of thinking in which reality does not and cannot appear to us as it previously did. Indeed, boredom presents an opportunity to allow ourselves to confront reality in an entirely different way.
Cora Diamond, in her essay “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy,” describes the difficulty of reality as “experiences in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it.” In these moments, not only do the concepts we normally use fail to capture reality, but we are also confronted with, and aware of, this shortcoming: we “have a sense of the inability of thought to encompass what it is attempting to reach.” It’s important to understand that, in order for the difficulty to exist, it need not be the case that it is recognizable by others. And, Diamond makes an even stronger point, namely that we have a way of deflecting from the difficulty— we can use our language, our everyday world of concepts, to obscure a difficulty.
Given this, one way to understand what it is for me to be bored is for me to see something and to take it as I always have. That is, nothing feels new or exciting, or even difficult or anguishing about what is in front of me. There is a continuity with what has always been and what feels like always will be. In a given moment, we could be engaging with reality in a different way, but our tendency to deflect and obscure concepts by subjecting them to ordinary thinking gets in the way.
So, what might boredom offer us? Boredom offers us the opportunity to engage with this difficulty. In particular, we can look at what is in front of us and ask why it is that this particular thing— and then reality itself— seems to me to be boring, to be as it always has, to not present me with something new or challenging. In God in Search of Man Heschel says: “radical amazement has a wider scope than any other act of man. While any act of perception or cognition has as its object a selected segment of reality, radical amazement refers to all of reality; not only to what we see [or think], but also to the very act of seeing [thinking] as well as to our own selves, to the selves that see and are amazed by their ability to see.” If we can push ourselves to see what is in front of us as amazing or as difficult, we may not not need to transform the world in front of us in order to have something to engage with. Rather, we will be able to engage with reality in a new way. Namely, not only will reality itself look different— whether that be exciting, anguishing, painful, shocking— but we will be excited, anguished, in pain, shocked, etc. about our own capacities to be the sort of being who can both understand and not understand, be bored and not be bored, by the world around us.