By Brandon Murphy
The term “boredom” was first used in reference to a boring tool used to drill holes. Apparently this is dreadful business. Perhaps it is the ceaseless repetition of a seemingly arbitrary act, or maybe the feeling that in this repetition, time seems to come to a standstill, or a loop, or something of the sort. Perhaps it is the alienation of losing oneself that accompanies this endless repetition, or maybe the feeling that there is no distinct end in sight, or, that the end is so far away and so underwhelming that it may as well not exist.
And yet (with some minor adjustments), the same reasoning for what makes boring holes so dreadful can be used to explain what makes something like music so mysteriously blissful: repetition, timelessness, movement as an end in itself. As well as music, these are the vital forces behind the endless brushstrokes of the painter, the laborious reps of the weightlifter, the lines upon lines the actor forces herself to memorize. One might argue that these activities are set apart from boring holes in that they all serve some magnificent end, whether it be a painting, a dramatic performance, or chiseled muscles. But if that’s the case, what about throwing a ball back and forth? Isn’t this something which is done explicitly to expel boredom? What about listening to the same song you’ve heard a million times, or revisiting your favorite route in the park, or consuming your favorite meal once again? And what about perhaps the most repetitive of all—sex?
It seems there’s a fine line between the states we consider most meaningful and those we detest, one which might not even mark a difference of concrete, identifiable attributes. What’s the catch?
Perhaps exploring the difference between self-alienation and the blissful disappearance of the self will help answer this question. The first state is defined precisely by its inability to achieve the nature of the second. Everything is in place: the self has every reason to fly away from itself into the mystic halls opened up by a hand in tandem with the holes it bores, but this is exactly what doesn’t happen. Rather, the self continually stumbles back onto itself: time passes like millions of needles; the hole-driller in his head is anywhere but where he actually is, and yet, the domination of the moment disallows him from true escape; he continually runs up against a wall, rationalizing to himself that this is not the case as he retreats, only to do the same thing again; he is desperate, squirming, claustrophobic. When the last hole is drilled and release is finally achieved, it doesn’t end up meaning much, since his struggle wasn’t really a genuine struggle to begin with, but rather an artificial one induced to distract the borer from the very lack of struggle at hand; the release is merely the dispellence of artificiality and entrance back into the neutral world of things.
On the other hand, the blissfully engaged state is marked by a fleeing which is granted by the nature of the moment, and which in fact ends up back in that very moment. The sprinter’s legs burn, yet each time he tries to dispel himself from the discomfort of his moment, he is thrown back into the fact that he is running fast and running well, that he is going somewhere, that— as opposed to the boring instance— his struggle is real and his escape artificial. The release of crossing the finish line is for him a consummation of his pain and persistence in a moment of turning, a flying back to neutrality in such a way that his entire journey comes into view, allowing him for a brief moment to hover above it with panting breaths.
Yet, it seems we’re falling into the conclusion which we initially rejected, namely, that it is the end at hand which distinguishes a meaningful act from a boring one. It can of course never be so simple, since the sprinter probably runs many races which are more agonizing than ecstatic, and likewise, the hole-driller must undoubtedly fall into a pleasant trance every now and then. Perhaps the answer here lies not in the drill, not in the furious legs, not in the finish line or the moment of completion, but in the curious emptiness of both the hole and the racing track. After all, this is both what gives the borer his business, and what allows the pedalling legs of the sprinter to stab at air.
If a kind of emptiness is a prerequisite to both sprinting and drilling holes— and for that matter, perhaps to any behavior at all— then it seems our relation to “the nothing” might be what ultimately distinguishes fulfillment from boredom. Yet, how can nothingness ultimately determine the great substantiveness of meaning? The former seems rather to be a scary and anxiety-inducing notion, yet, even so, it is intimately related with the awe-inspiring expanse of an endless ocean, or the ethereal bliss of meditation, or even the sense of being so invested in a good movie that everything else falls away. In the final analysis, bliss and dread are an uncomfortably intimate couple.
Nothingness, or more specifically, non-awareness, is a definitive feature of everyday existence: I would wager that you weren’t concretely aware of the doorknob you turned in order to enter the room you’re in, but I’m sure we can both agree that a doorknob was turned. This sort of “mere happening” of everyday life is precisely the luxury which the miserable hole-driller cannot enjoy; he is made brutally aware of himself and his holes by way of the sheer dreadfulness of his work. Yet, to be in this place is arguably to be halfway between mere everydayness and a deeply engaged state which at once returns to and surpasses the former. In a full-on death-sprint, the sprinter is catapulted headlong into the nothingness which undergirds the mere “happening” of everyday experience, yet in a brutally and blissfully active way. Why is this the case? Because no “something” is definitively added in the act of moving fast; rather, the world itself appears differently, perhaps as more holistic and energetic, and in this difference lies the trace of a shimmering void.
Yet, if it is my precarious relation to the nothing that constitutes meaning, what am I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for the nothing to approach me on its own terms?
Maybe so! If what we said about hole-drilling adds up, it’s pretty clear that the more someone in the throes of boredom tries to wriggle her way out, the more she will be smothered by the ceaseless reflection of her own immobility. Perhaps the best thing to do is simply give up! That way, boredom will be unable to find any footholds. Viewed in a less fatalistic light, a surrender of this kind might more accurately be described as a propulsion into the nothing itself, a dramatic embrace of that regenerative realm of awe and beauty, the space behind closed eyes, the horizon of a sprawling sea, the immanence of world which arises from the proper absence of selfhood.
In regards to the nothing, perhaps—whether in running or hole-drilling—the difference is simply a matter of tilting your head the right way.