Boredom: When Time Kills Us

By Joseph Diller

In boredom, we don’t kill time, but time kills us. It’s a passivity, not an activity. As the clock ticks and boredom seizes us, we feel empty desire – a desire for desire. We reason, objectively, a lack of meaning in our life-activity and, subjectively, our own disengagement with our life-activity – a problem uneasily located in either objective or subjective sense. We perceive a fragmented, confused world – the sense that things don’t make sense. Indeed, when bored, it seems all we know is our interaction with time, a kind of deflating interaction that leaves us passive in the passenger’s seat, staring at time’s passing as time stares back at us.

On this account, boredom appears to be a bad or depressing thing, but let’s first resist such a value-judgment. In reality, there are many different experiences of boredom, some good and others bad, and it’s near impossible to account for all experiences. However, I take the salient feature to be gathered from boredom’s experience is that we’re struck with the self-realization that we’re bound to time and either blessed or condemned with the freedom to make do with this fact. It’s only our reaction, the good or bad value-judgment we reflectively assign to the experience, that causes us to either submit to or rebel against time. It’s really up to us to decide how much longer we want to be bored.

Certainly, in the bad experiences, we can find boredom to be a precursor to depression. In these cases, boredom is an empty, alienating experience about meaning in our interaction with the world. Not only are we disinterested in our life-activity, but are pained with a sharp self-awareness of our state of being. The music stops and we realize facts about the human condition: that we’re finite, that we always have problems to solve, that we’re made up of a contingent body that’s limited by itself, that no matter our racing thoughts, we think contingently against time, which passes just like our thoughts. And, we don’t like these facts. We are repulsed and nauseous, left in a state of analysis paralysis, submissive to our experience of boredom. Just like Antoine Roquentin in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, we trap ourselves in our thoughts and dwell in boredom to a deeper kind of existential boredom where we don’t act in, and be with, the world while we just happen to kill time, but instead only think about, and disagree with, the world while time tragically kills us. As Antoine writes, “It is a profound boredom, profound, the profound heart of existence, the very matter I am made of” (Nausea 157).

On the other hand, in the good experiences, we can find boredom to serve the function as a motivating indicator that something in particular is amiss in life and how it’s our duty to make right. We stare at time and, in an act of rebellion against its gaze, reflect on ourselves – our place in the world, our identity, the set of problems we assign ourselves – and make a change about our place, identity, and problems. That is, as life’s problems become boring, we take our boredom not as a death blow, but as a problem itself, albeit the most general one, about the particular problems we choose to solve in our life-activity. 

A difficult problem, to be sure, boredom in this case becomes a good experience once we make the executive decision to rebel in saying “enough!” to time’s waste and begin to participate in the world through an act of self-creation. We set out a vision of the kind of person we want to be with what kind of problems and where we’ll solve them. Our rebellion turns our experience of boredom into an experience of liberation that’s in retrospect viewed as the baptismal reason for the kind of person we are today. Perhaps post-boredom we still acknowledge the fact that time passes, though it’s now on our terms. Indeed, in our newfound relationship with time, we’re no longer bored by time, but its worthy opponent, harmoniously in sync, often finding ourselves entranced by our chosen adventure, losing track of the time.

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