The Perils of Boredom: The Value of Learning in a Pandemic
It is only proof of our humanity if we feel anxious in times of uncertainty. Our new “normal” presents us with an unprecedented phenomenon—time. With time comes boredom, and it is likely that we will feel most of the effects of this worldwide pandemic in our boredom.
The Dangers of Boredom
“What am I going to do with all this time?”
In The Screwtape Letters, the senior devil, Screwtape, convinces his apprentice, Wormwood, to pervert his subject’s natural desire for change. Wormwood uses the apparent presence of abnormality to force the subject into believing that novelty—change for the sake of change—will suppress his boredom.
Given that boredom is justified by uncertainty, the subject is convinced that any new, exciting idea can satisfy his longings. Thus, boredom and novelty complement themselves dangerously, as they persuade us that anything is worthy of our attention—sin and apathy are usually byproducts of this threatening mixture. Caught under this spell, the subject comes to the end of his wits, falling into a state of perpetual lifelessness:
You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.
Without undermining the seriousness of our situation, “perpetual lifelessness” is undoubtedly threatening the spiritual, intellectual, and psychological growth of younger generations. Lewis’s mention of “staring at a dead fire in a cold room” bears a peculiar resemblance to the issue of technology and social isolation, an issue that so often leads back to apathy. In that, the endless scrolling of social media may prove the most dangerous fuel to the fire of lifelessness.
One anecdote to the affliction of lifelessness is learning—learning not as an end in itself, but for the sake of truth—and we will discuss this in the latter half of this article. Before dealing with the why of learning, we must first examine the significance of our times.
So, What Is “Normal?”
We are mistaken when we justify boredom, and consequently “perpetual lifelessness,” with the absence of “normality” or “certainty.” The fact of the matter is that “normal life” is a façade, and human culture has forever existed on the brink of collapse.
Humanity exists at the mercy of unforeseen, dangerous circumstances. The impact of plagues and terrorism are threats to be expected, yet they, also, occur without anticipation. Even the seemingly “normal,” tranquil periods of existence are tormented by the unpredictable. Although some seasons of life may be more normal than others, true normality is unattainable. In his famous sermon, Learning in Wartime, C.S. Lewis echoes this point when he states that:
The war [or virus] creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.
Lewis reminds us that our previous normal has been swept away into a sea of uncertainty, and our peril—this virus—prompts us to realize that we cannot ignore the finitude of our own existences. Our current times remind us that the human condition is but a shadow, and “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
The absence of a true “normality” should not negate the anxiety we feel about current circumstances—we are allowed to feel, just as Christ did at Gethsemane. The Cross reminds us that God uses evil for good, but also teaches us that He is not in the business of nullifying emotion. We may cry out “my God, my God,” while also submitting to His Lordship—and this is the beautiful paradox of Christianity.
A Remedy to Boredom
Now that we have established that the justification for boredom is void—due to the fact that “normal” does not truly exist—we can look at one possible solution.
One beneficial thing we can do to combat “perpetual lifelessness” is to actively exercise our minds. It is easy to forget that the New Testament not only promotes the idea that Christ is our master, but also our teacher, and we are His lowly students. Christ calls us to sit at His feet, and this means growing to learn and love His teachings (Luke 10:38-42). Yet, the natural prerequisite to appreciating any teaching is to know the dangers of the alternative. This point is further illustrated in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he states:
[I] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech and wisdom… and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
-1 Corinthians 2:1, 4-5
History tells us that the church at Corinth found herself struggling to dismiss the platonic, stoic, and cynic schools of thought, and it is these philosophies Paul refers to when he says “lofty speech and wisdom.” Because Paul is aware of these ideologies, he can present himself as a student of Christ, given that he is able to gauge his perspective with an alternative. In this way, the Great Commandment is not merely a call to preach Christ, but a call to know what it means to not preach Christ.
Why Learning Combats Boredom
I make the point of the student—the point that the student must grasp alternatives—to say this: the beauty of the gospel message shines even brighter when we apprehend its inverse. For what is the value of a lovely, spring day without the bitter winter? It may ring true that reading—and possibly, healthily empathizing with—the nihilists, postmodernists, and skeptics might bring us closer to Christ, and in greater comfort of truth.
As theological and philosophical illiteracy has plagued younger generations, reading the “alternatives” is not necessarily a given. Yet, learning for the sake of truth challenges the temptation of boredom, and heightens our adoration for Christ. The path of novelty and lifelessness becomes less attractive as Christ is our guide through all the abnormalities of life.