Suzanne Mayer, I.H.M., Ph.D.
Volume 28 Number Two Summer 2007, PAGES 44-48
When my sisters and I were little, the days of play lengthened and the time seemed to hang heavy on us as the month of August moved its slow way through the summer. Typically, we would then go to our mother and complain that we were “bored!” She had her own customary response to that. “Don’t tell me you’re bored,” she would war n. “Find something to do with your time, or I will find something to fill it.” We knew what she meant. With a large family she always had some household chores that needed doing: closets cleaned, flowerbeds weeded, floors scrubbed. That was not what we had in mind. She never told us what we should “find” to counter the boredom; that was up to us to devise. So, each month of August we would discover “new” adventures to enter into, from building a lemonade stand on the corner, to volunteering at the local S P CA, to joining the library reading club. As long as it was creative, my mother gave her tacit per mission to escape the routines of the house.
LOOKING FOR MORE LIFE
Recently, in working with a number of women religious, especially younger ones, on retreat, in conferences, and as a pastoral counselor, I have heard the same complaint: “I am bored.” When I have probed into the meaning of this term, I have understood a definition different from that of the dull drag of the end of summer vacation. The being bored of which these women speak is characterized more by a lack of meaning in what they do than in too much free time to fill. They speak of being busy, constantly busy, but of finding no sense of purpose in the many occupations, jobs, responsibilities that fill their day.
One young religious, reflecting on her sense of “boredom,” stated, “I dread saying this in my community, local or large, because I know that the answer will b e to find more thing s for me to do. I am not looking for more work; I am looking for more life.” And yet as I sat with this 30-year old woman and others like her, I realized that, while their mantra is “I am bored,” they are anything but boring. The individuals who share this confession of ennui seem to me most vital, interesting and creative, and this difference between them and their complaint is significant.
MENTAL ILLNESS AND BOREDOM
The Princeton professor and pastoral theologian Robert Dykstra relates a now well-known and exceptionally insightful incident that occurred with the British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott shortly before his death. While giving a conference to a group of Anglican clergy Winnicott was asked how a minister might know if a troubled parishioner who comes to him needs the pastoral support that he as clergy is able to give or should be referred for professional help. Winnicott stated that he was “taken aback by the awesome simplicity” of the question and in response offered a guideline that pointed to the unconscious redirection of the feelings of the parishioner to the pastor: “If a person comes and talks to you, and listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.” Being boring signified for Winnicott emotional distress severe enough to warrant serious mental health intervention.
An earlier psychological pioneer, Melanie Klein, explains that finding someone boring communicates the collapse of internal space so necessary for human relationship. When an individual, through trauma, emotional or physical abandonment, early chaos or other significant deprivation, experiences a lack of formative inter-human reflection and mirroring, he or she comes to have little or no ability to form the interior reflective space necessary for the differentiation of self from the world. All that is other merges with self, allowing no capacity for the other to enter. Such persons operate in a paradox of nonproductive psychic space. Filled with a type of dead sterility, their psyche forms a sort of trapped vacuum—nothing but chaos within with no room for admittance of any revitalizing element. With no capacity for contemplative space, such persons are experienced by another, especially an intuitive other, as sterile, lifeless, “boring.”
The young women I encounter do not seem dull, tedious or wearisome; so this paradox of full but empty would indicate that they are not developmentally dulled. A different explanation seems to lie in their cry of “I’m bored!” A look at the phenomenon of boredom through both psychosocial and spiritual lenses may suggest both cause and relief.
TWO KINDS OF BOREDOM
One type of boredom common across most age groups and American sub-cultures does seem to be a spreading plague, more real than avian flu, more pervasive than pollutants in the water. Donald McCullough, in a comprehensive article on the phenomenon, suggests that there are two forms of boredom, with the first more of a personal choice. He states that this form “results from turning our backs on what life has to offer” and connects it to the capital sin of acedia, “a choice for death, a willing separation from the joys of life” (p. 31). While there is some truth in the heightened awareness and seemingly insidious nature of boredom in post-modern culture of which he speaks, my sense of the cry of the women I have mentioned is that their option is not to “slumber through life without really waking up,” but of an inundation, socially, professionally, even ministerially.
This leads to McCullough’s second kind of boredom. A product of the too much, too soon, too fast environment, boredom results from the metronome of contemporary life b eating a rhythm in the brain of the post-modern person. This pulse, coming since before birth and throughout life, is absorbed from the milieu like a virus. Few even realize how much their internal and external worlds are set to the b eat of an endless, erratic drummer. As the drumb eat drones, interior reality fills with noise, like the static background of a radio out of range.
THE MODERN COLLAPSE OF CONTEMPLATIVE SPACE
The German philosopher and anthropologist Max Picard describes “the situation with people today” as exactly opposite from the world of “the old Masters.” Writing in the World War II and post-war era, he has been celebrated as a forerunner of modern existential philosophers. He notes: “The primary factor is movement for its own sake, movement that hits a definite target only by accident, movement that happens before it has been decided why it is happening, movement that is always ahead of man himself” (p. 63). In his powerful, reflective work Picard sees the human dilemma as one in which, because of the loss of silence and the disappearance of contemplative space, the whole of human economy—words, meaning, relationships—has all collapsed into an “alternative of obstinacy and despair” in which language itself acquires a hardness, “as though it were making a great effort to remain alive in spite of the emptiness” (p. 41).
This state of emptiness, a result of a kind of existential overactivity, creates, even for the most highly functioning of modern individuals, a cacophony of chaos and a sort of constant soul-claustrophobia. Without and within is the booming, buzzing bombardment that Picard describes. An intriguing report of such chaos and concomitant ennui came from a dream and its analysis offered by a religious woman I met on retreat.
She came after a day of feeling what she described as a kind of “spiritual malaise” and a night of restlessness leaving her very fatigued. “I guess I finally got to sleep around 3:00 a.m. or so, and sometime after had a strange dream.” She found herself, in the dream as was true in her real life, being assigned to move a large school into a much smaller one and feeling overwhelmed with the task. “Everywhere I looked were huge boxes and containers, piles of books and tumbled furniture. Then all of a sudden I came into this one room, I think perhaps my office. Like all the others, everything was pushed together into this too-small space leaving no space to breathe much less move.” Then she saw herself approached by another religious woman who seemed to be assisting with the move. “I recognized her,” she said, “as a colleague from a former assignment. A gentle and calm soul, she moved into the room with me, and, as we stepped past the piles, together we noticed a section blocked off by a tumble of chairs and desks. I wanted to push the furniture aside, in fact, to overturn the entire pile, but she just reassured me that we would be fine making our way around it.” Then the retreatant moved to the other side of the wall where she found a large space, dark and still crowded with heavy furniture, “kind of a man’s den with bookcases filled to overflowing and towering to the ceiling.” Taking several other steps, she noticed a large arched doorway to the side, with “lovely cantilevered windows, partly open with soft sunlight beaming through them.” Turning to point this out to her companion, she found, to her surprise, that the whole area had opened up to twice its size.
When I asked her the meaning of her dream, she related it to the highly stressful task of moving the schools. “There is too much for me to do, and all I seem to get is frustrated with each unfinished day. I am constantly impatient, but at the same time almost lethargic. While I am known to be a worker, an organizer and very responsible in whatever is asked of me, I just feel myself plodding along in all this, dragging b ehind me an ever heavier load.”
I observed to her that many dream interpreters suggest that the presence of a building of any kind in a dream represents the self, and that if the dream event occurs inside the structure, it represents the unconscious. “Suppose,” I suggested, “the building into which you are moving doesn’t represent your current assignment, but your psyche, your inner self.” She took off with the connection. “Then,” she said, “the blocked-off space I discovered is the more that rests inside of me, that part of me that seeks time and space for reflection.” She observed that per iods of such indepth quiet had b ecome few lately. “Didn’t I hear as well that all persons in a dream represent part of yourself?” she said and then continued, “If so, then the other sister is that part of me that can b e observing, meditative and centered. The protagonist in me wants to push ahead, to do more, to shove thing s around, but that other part, perhaps more intuitive, understands that what I need is to allow openness. As that happens I will discover more freedom in myself and in my life.”
FINDING RUAH—SPIRIT AND SPACE
As fascinating as the dream and analysis proved, the next part of our time together was even more powerful and suggested another aspect to consider in response to “I’m bored.” From the image of the widening out of the “man’s den,” the retreatant and I moved into a place of the Spirit. She confessed a sense of neglect of spirit, her own and God’s, as the tasks of her assignment multiplied. She had noticed that, even when she carved out some time to be quiet, the craziness inside her head and heart kept moving like “a gerbil on one of those exercise wheels inside the cage.” What she longed for was the breath of the Spirit, moving in and through the chaos.
That image changed into a meditation on the creation passages in the book of Genesis (chapters 1 and 2) that we had shared prayerfully on a retreat several years before. She had loved them and called them to mind often, the poetic lines capturing the movement of Ruah, God’s creative spirit, across the face of the void, bringing the primordial elements into a harmonious order, allowing the breath that is life to separate dark from light, sky from earth, sea from ground (Genesis 1:2).
One resolution to boredom is the movement to the realization that we are not empty, but too full, and of all the wrong things. Like the original ooze of Genesis, we have all the ingredients of fullness of life, but instead of it “springing up inside as a life-giving water” (John 4:14), it is roiled and boiled into the meaningless nothing that is a void. It waits for space to redeem it.
Child analyst, Adam Phillips, touches on that positive side in describing the boredom he sees forming in his young clients, as “a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated . . . In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize.” The rush to rescue the child from the boredom dooms him/her to a life that “must be seen to be endlessly interesting” (quoted in Dykstra). So, the routine of constant afternoons in which toddlers are ferried from t-ball, to music lessons, to charm school, to French lessons begins and the possibility for a contemplative holding within disappears.
The response to boredom, then, seems to lie not in terminating its experience with more activity, but in opening up what Winnicott called the “transitional space,” the play area in which mind and spirit can engage imaginatively with a freedom that defies limits. In words that almost ring as poetry Ann Ulanov describes the transitional space in spiritual terms:
“This transitional space is our first opening up to and moving into the experiences of being and becoming, our first opportunity to experience the evolving power of living full out, with all our heart and mind and strength. . . Our transition is to something somewhere, a movement toward the ultimate, to something that endures” (p. 6).
As I reflected on the opening up of space, a small postcard picture that sits on my desk caught my eye. It depicts a modern sculpture that stands in the Church of Sts. Joseph and Medardus in Cologne, Germany. The few words on the back in English, German and Spanish pray: “We live in the heart of God. May the holy triune God live in our hearts and the hearts of all people.” The image on the front is of a silhouette in stone; two large and very abstract figures face each other with heads bent together and hands clasped. The b ending and clasping figures for m a circle of open space within the stone in which a golden globe of the world is cradled. Around the circumference of this hollow a white glow sharply outlines the space. When I first received the card, I studied the image for a while, read the words and then asked the friend who had given it to me how these two figures could represent the “triune God.” She answered that she, too, had at first wondered at that, but musing on it brought this insight: “Of course, the two embracing figures represent the creating Father and saving Son, but the space and the light that surround the glob e is the Holy Spirit.”
How right! How poetic! How theologically true! The Spirit of life is the invisible presence of God made visible in creation and in the person of Jesus. In these post-Pentecost days, the Spirit remains the breath of God, the warmth of God, the presence of God, not just supporting the world and its creatures but enfolding us.
This image of God wrapped around the world touches into another form of boredom of which McCullough writes, one “inherent to life itself . . . that comes from being made for something more than we now experience . . . this second type can never find fulfillment within worldly limitations” (p. 32). This speaks, of course, of the yearning of the Augustinian confession: “My heart thirsts for you, O Lord, and is ever restless until it rests in you.” While words such as search, yearn, thirst and restless might sound more symptomatic of anxiety than boredom, the lived experience is that in this life the dissatisfaction of never reaching that goal can lead to a certain ennui. McCullough parallels this existential ennui to the dissatisfaction, even apathy of the sated child who stilllooks for more. The relief from this boredom is again not escape but embrace. Once again, as Picard notes, this embrace wraps itself around contemplative silence. Without the silence, the object of the search fades and the yearning finds its immediate relief in the here and now. To hold the awe and allow the yearning to become a creative tension inside, a sort of spiritual hunger, silence is necessary. Picard writes:
It is a sign of the love of God that a mystery is always separated from man by a layer of silence. And that is a reminder that man should also keep a silence in which to approach the mystery. Today, when there is only noise in and around man, it is difficult to approach the mystery. When the layer of silence is missing, the extraordinary easily becomes connected with the ordinary, with the routine flow of things, and man reduces the extraordinary to a mere part of the ordinary, a mere part of the mechanical routine (pp. 227-228)