Bertrand Russell on Boredom

I have a friend who claims he is never bored. I don’t believe him — I never have. I’ve never challenged him directly; such an endeavor seems petty and wouldn’t accomplish anything, and yet whenever he makes the claim, I pooh-pooh such an idea as impossible.

I’m currently listening to “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” a wonderful little ditty of a book by NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner. His second chapter is on the Swiss, who according to scientific data — and we all know we can’t doubt “scientific data” (“!”) — are some of the happiest folks on earth.

Herr Weiner wasn’t particularly impressed. He found them both bored and boring. On time, certainly! And very tidy. But boring none-the-less. While in Berne, he also found Albert Einstein’s apartment, the very place where Einstein came up with the theory of special relativity: a mental exercise on his part designed to overcome the boredom inherent in the city of Berne, according to my travel guide, Eric Weiner. In telling the story, Weiner offers some helpful insights on boredom that inform my secret disagreement with my friend who claims he is never bored.

Seventy-nine minutes into the audio book, Weiner asks,

“Is there really something to be said for boredom? The British philosopher Bertrand Russell thought so. ‘A certain amount of boredom is essential to a happy life,’ he wrote. Maybe I’ve misjudged the Swiss; maybe they know something about boredom and happiness that the rest of us don’t.”

A bit later, Weiner continues to quote Russell:

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a nation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Let me illustrate. Learning a skill well requires a great deal of repetition: Wynton Marsalis playing endless scales on his trumpet, Charity, my niece endlessly looking at “bugs” in a microscope, Venus Williams serving endless tennis balls across the net at lightning speed, Michael Jordan shooting free throws for hours. All are boring activities. And what’s the alternative of “little men?” From what we know Hank Aaron — certainly no “little man” — spent countless boring hours in the weight room and countless more hours (no doubt, just as boring) in the batting cage in order to become the home run king. The little men that have followed him were unwilling to endure the slow process of nature and went the route of shooting steroids.

Similarly, children raised on the deadening narcotic of the three minute sound byte served up by “educational television” fare such as Sesame Street and Barney, are not well equipped to handle the rigors of a true education. Learning one’s declensions is boring stuff, but necessary if one hopes to hear the genius of Goethe in its original German. Those of us who found learning a foreign language too difficult, too tedious, or (Dare I say it?) too boring have to settle for translations which simply cannot capture the magic and mystery of his work.

So when my friend says he never gets bored, quite frankly I don’t believe him. But I think he means something rather different than I do. What he really means is that he is quite content to be bored on occasion; he needs neither the trinkets nor the trivialities of “small men” to distract him from the “slow process of nature.” He finds the tedium of learning a new task, if not exciting, at least fulfilling. He finds the slow pace of birds, rabbits, bushes and trees in the side yard to be more satisfying than Vin Diesel shooting up the television screen. In other words, what he can’t endure is empty entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

Is not needing to be entertained the same thing as not getting bored? Russell would say no. Entertainment is a shallow alternative that attempts to avoid the natural cycle of discovery, reflection, and finally, the boredom which drives us on to a new discovery. My friend is content with the cycle of discovery and therefore has little need to be entertained. Can this possibly mean that he never gets bored? I doubt it.

Consider Russell’s final observation: Those that are unwilling to suffer boredom are those “in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.” Those who refuse to be bored by seeking to be entertained eventually find only the trivialities of entertainment, in contrast to the occasional tedium of reality, to be momentarily amusing. And when we cease to be nourished by reality — the real world of spiritual discipline, scientific discovery, the arts, the satisfaction of labor — in favor of reality television, we grow ever smaller, and possibly cease to be human in any normal sense of the word. In short, our human spirit shrinks and dies.

All because we prefer to be amused and entertained when the alternative is the inevitable tedium and even occasional boredom of engaging the breadth and depth and height of this often slow-paced world.