The news recently of the Australian man killed in Oklahoma by a group of wayward teens is enough to fill you with heartbreak and rage. But it does so all the more by the fact that one of the perps said they did so because they were bored. This follows closely the story of the teen who attached explosives to kittens and blew them up to post on Facebook because, he too was bored.
We've all felt it. We all dread it. How many of us have balked at some outing or obligation just at the mere specter of boredom hovering over the event like Dementor of Azkaban waiting to suck out all of our cheer. And while I don't think that most of us are bored to the point of homicide, I think it is important enough to take a moment of reflection.
I once read a book by Dr. Peter Kreeft where he made the most shocking claim: ancient people were not bored. His evidence is that the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews had no word for boredom. The concept was foreign to them because their lives were full. They worked all day and took what time they had free to enjoy food and recreation when they could. It wasn't until much, much later in history that a word was even need to describe this new feeling: ennui.
So it seems we are more bored today than people of the past. Why is that? I think that there are three reasons for this:
First, people in the ancient world had shorter days. Sundown was the time for most people to wrap up the day. Any activity at night would require the lighting of lamps and the consumption of oil, rather than the flicking of a switch. To be sure there were some who used such light to work through the night, but I would imagine it was rarer. Think of the bustling night life we have now. Good tv doesn't even begin until 8pm. Many of us still rise before the sun, but we stay up way past its setting. So now we have much more time to fill.
Second, humans are intelligent and desire increasing complexity. We don't play tic-tac-toe much anymore because its outcome is predictable (as proven by War Games). But we addictively seek to enter increasingly difficult stages of candy crush. When varied complex stimulation is available, we seek it out. And we feel their absence. How many times do we check the same website in a single day, hoping that they've updated their information? How often to we check new posts on Facebook or twitter in a single hour? How often do we check our phones because we think we felt it vibrate when it really did not? Once we get used to that stimulation, our minds have trouble living without it.
But the third thing is the most important: we don't know how to be silent.
It is in our nature to be filled with excitement, a sense of "living." When we are bored, we feel malaise that robs us of this exhilaration. We feel empty. So we will fill our lives with the most inane nonsense rather than fill that emptiness.
But I think we mistake emptiness with silence.
I once went on an 8-day silent retreat. The first day was amazing in that I was so frustrated at not having an outlet for my desire to talk. I was just left with my thoughts. And in those thoughts I was trapped. I could only speak to myself.
In those 8 days, my mind was so starved of external things, that I could finally open up and accept the interior voice of God. Normally my prayer life is jumbled. In the hour I spend in prayer each day, I think that maybe five minutes are free from distraction. I'm always thinking about the next thing I need to do or the movie I just watched or the worry weighing on me that the next thing I know, my rosary is done and I barely remember it.
But at the 8 day retreat I was given 2 gifts: silence and time. As I said, the first day was tough because my mind was on anything else but God. But as the days wore on, I found that I had nothing but God to fill my mind. And I was not rushing off to the next thing. I could walk barefoot in to the softly carpeted chapel at midnight and sit before the Lord in the Tabernacle. I had no place to go, no promises to keep, and nothing but God until I would sleep.
And in that silence, I found that I wasn't bored. How could you be bored when your mind is present to the Mind of God, when your heart is present to Love Himself? I could sit on a rock and look at a tree for an hour with fascination. I could rest comfortably in a chair and really notice how I was comfortable in that position. I could appreciate these things more because I was filled. I didn't look at the things of this world with a greedy eye, seeking the satisfaction of mental stimulation. I was satisfied in my own thoughts in my own mind so that I could simply appreciate what was in front of me.
I think if I can keep the lessons I learned there, then boredom will be less of a problem. I think for all of us can see silence as not a punishment but an opportunity. In those quiet moments we can make our minds present to God. And he can make our minds present to the present. When I'm stuck in traffic, can I appreciate the architecture of the buildings around me? When I'm waiting in line at the super market, can I reflect on how fortunate I am to have the opportunity purchase such abundant food? And when I'm at the opera...
...okay, I've got nothing...
The point is that is a prison imposed from without and shackles the person within. Its walls darken and obscure the outside world. And it deadens you to the real beauty around you. That numbness can be so abysmal that some would do anything to escape it, even kill. They year for freedom from boredom. But they will not find it there.
Freedom from boredom can only come from within.