This article first appeared at http://www.medium.com/ministrymatters
It’s been over two months of lock downs, isolation, physical distancing, and mask-wearing. Depending on where you live, you may be facing this for the foreseeable future. For myself, I have long moved past my initial bouts of irritation. Being unable to run down to the local mall and pick up a present for my wife’s birthday made me pout and sit around like a frustrated lump. This may seem reasonable enough, but my irritations didn’t stop there. I felt the prick of annoyance when faced with being unable to journey to my local coffee shop, or wander through the electronic store in search for a new gizmo. Frankly, I almost threw a hissy-fit when I realised I couldn’t get the specialty ingredients for the dinner I wanted to make. And even though random stores and restaurants may be opening all around us, the times of unrestricted normalcy of which we were previously accustomed has long gone. In its replacement…Nothing.
So, like so many others, I must confess; I am bored.
Boredom is easy to recognise. We diagnose it as a natural consequence of inactivity. But what if we looked deeper? Could our internal sense of boredom point to something significant in our spiritual lives? Might boredom highlight a twisting of our inner selves; a spiritual dis-ease needing to be addressed? Might we see boredom as indicative of God calling us back to the divine centre in which our souls must rest and be satisfied?
As I sat with this thought, I happened to come across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Letters and Papers from Prison. I figured if anyone might have something to say regarding being unexpectedly cut-off from his church community (and all other social activity for that matter), it would be Bonhoeffer. Happily, as I have come to expect by this thoughtful pastor, he did not disappoint. Bonhoeffer begins this book by offering a reflection on, what he terms, mass-leveling events. These events, writes Bonhoeffer, mean:
“…the renunciation of all the place-hunting, a break with the cult of the ‘star’, an open eye both upwards and downwards…Culturally, it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.” [i]
With prophetic voice, Bonhoeffer cuts through our tendency to focus on petty irritations and points us to a deeper truth potentially at work. Mass-levelling events call us away from our idolatries. They unmask the sandy foundations upon which we are tempted build our lives. After all, the call away from extravagance to moderation, or from sensationalism to reflection is eerily contemporary is it not?
If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we will see that most of our frustrations centre around the inability to satisfy temporary delights. For example, why is it that we feel frustrated when unable to sit in our favourite coffee shop? Does this disclose something about ourselves? Perhaps a deep-seeded insecurity is at play, or a desire for image-management expressed in our propensity to attribute a certain status to particular brands and places. In this way, the frustration we feel over not being able to obtain our favourite latte may not be so much a matter of flavor or taste, but about the inability to be recognized as the kind of person who enjoys certain beverages. Is the frustration connected to a loss of a beverage, or loss of perceived status?
Similarly, can we not clearly see, in light of the pandemic, how much of life is mediated through the “cult of the star”? Celebrity status invades much of life, often without our conscious acknowledgement. Instead of a movement away from the radio could we not say that the time of pandemic calls us away from the computer, the cell-phone, the constant buzz of social media? Being bored at the prospect of binge-watching yet another Netflix series only highlights how inept such things are at satisfying the deep yearnings of our souls. Yet too often these are the things to which we turn.
Of course, I do not want to deny that there are some legitimate pains being experienced in this time. The inability to hug a grandchild, or celebrate a birthday with loved ones, is undoubtedly a heartache with which I sympathise. In response to these legitimate pains, all we can do is acknowledge the difficulty of the time in which we live. And, in fact, this is the same response we are called to make when faced with the frustrated boredom in other spheres. The way forward is not to replace our lost comforts with new, but equally idolatrous, tasks or entertainments. Replacing one idol with another will do us no spiritual good. Instead, boredom calls us to sit within it; to recognise our experience of boredom as a dissatisfaction of heart and soul. Boredom equals restlessness, and when we are restless we must enter those moments prayerfully, searching for the presence of God. As Archbishop Rowan Williams writes:
“. . . to try to escape boredom…restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace. Without the humiliating and wholly ‘unspiritual’ experience of cell-life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature. It is a discipline to destroy illusion.” [ii]
For Williams, combatting boredom by propping up new entertainments still roots us in a life of illusion. It is to still live our lives under the goal of entertainment, distraction, or bliss. The illusion, or the idol, of self-gratification still reigns supreme in our lives, now just under a new guise. Thus, new entertainments fail to address the source of spiritual dis-ease. Ultimately, they will lead to the same frustrated boredom as experienced prior.
Instead of propping up new entertainments, we must recognise our sensations of boredom for what they are, the stirrings of inner restlessness. Restlessness is not a product of what exists or does not exist; it is indicative of dissatisfaction deep within. As Williams writes, the Christian person, wrestling with the illusion of boredom and tediousness, must “recognise that root of illusion in himself [sic].” Boredom points out to us that we have lost our centre. Thus, we must sit within our restless in order to overcome it. We must seek God’s direction and insight into from where our dissatisfactions stem. Do we place too much emphasis on being entertained? Does this restlessness speak to an attempt to overly manage or control our own life? Can we loosen our life of ease and comfort in order to gain the true life of divine closeness?
We are created for a life of relational intimacy with God. We are not created to be endlessly entertained. Thus, the boredom of our lives performs a prophetic function within us. It calls us back to the centrality of our life with God. It is in this sense that we can call boredom a “blessed” sensation, for it serves to prompt us to reach out to Christ, and find our satisfaction in him alone.
[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; 1953 Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York, NY. Touchstone Publishers)
[ii] Williams, Rowan; 2014 The Wound of Knowledge. (London, UK; Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd) Kobo Edition