By Rev. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Theologian, teacher, award-winning author, and President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX
In 2011, a book by a young writer, Bieke Vandekerckhove, won the award as The Spiritual Book of the Year in her native Belgium. Entitled, The Taste of Silence, the book chronicles her own struggles after being diagnosed at age nineteen with ALS, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition that always results in a massive debilitation of one’s body and almost always results in death not long afterwards. Not an easy diagnosis for a vibrant young woman to accept.
But, after a deep, initial depression, she found meaning in her life through meditation, silence, literature, art, poetry, and, not least, through a relationship that eventually led to marriage. Unexpectedly too her disease went into remission and she lived for another twenty years. Among the many rich insights she shares with us, she offers an interesting reflection on boredom.
Discussing the prevalence of boredom today, she highlights an irony, namely, that boredom is increasing among us even as we are daily producing every kind of gadget to help us avoid it. Given that today we carry in our hands technological devices that link us to everything from the world news of the day to photos of our loved ones playing with their children, shouldn’t we be insulated against boredom? Ironically, the opposite seems true. All those technological gadgets are not alleviating our boredom. Why not? We still wrestle with boredom because all the stimulation in the world doesn’t necessarily make for meaning. Meaning and happiness, she suggests, do not consist so much in meeting interesting people and being exposed to interesting things; rather they consist in taking a deeper interest in people and things.
The word interest is derived from two Latin words: inter (inside) and esse (being) which, when combined, connote being inside of something. Things are interesting to us when we are interested enough in them to really get inside of them. And our interest isn’t necessarily predicated on how naturally stimulating something is in itself, though admittedly certain events and experiences can be so powerful as to literally conscript our interest. That’s what explains our strong interest in major world events, championship sports matches, Academy Award celebrations, as well as our less-than-healthy obsession with the private lives of our celebrities. Certain persons, things, and events naturally interest us and we want to be on the “inside” of those lives and events.
But major world news stories, championship sporting events, the Academy Awards, and the private lives of our celebrities are not our ordinary fare, our family dinner table, our workplace, our commute to work, our church service, our neighborhood bake-sale, our daily routine, our daily bread. And it’s here where we tend to suffer boredom because it’s here that we tend to not be deeply inside the reality of the people and events with whom and with which we are interacting. It’s here that we often feel life as flat, dull, and routine. But, at the end of the day, we wrestle with boredom not because our families, workplaces, colleagues, neighbors, churches, and friends aren’t interesting. We’re bored because we’re too internally impoverished, distracted, or self-centered to take a genuine interest in them. Experience is not what happens to us, it’s what we do with that happens to us. So says Einstein.
Vandekerckhove highlights yet another irony: It’s ironic that we tend to wrestle with boredom and dullness when we are in the full bloom of our lives, healthy and working; whereas people like her, who have lost their health and are staring death in the face, often find the most ordinary experiences in life exhilarating.
Her insights bear a lot of resemblance to those of Rainer Maria Rilke in his, Letters to a Young Poet. Like Vandekerckhove, he too suggests that boredom is a fault on our side, a disinterested eye. In his correspondence with an aspiring young poet, he takes up the young man’s complaint that he, the young man, wasn’t enough exposed to the kind of experiences that spawn poetry because lived in a small town where nothing exciting ever seemed to happen. He went on to confess that he envied Rilke who traveled extensively throughout Europe and met all kinds of interesting people. For him, Rilke’s poetic insights were very much predicated on the fact that he hung out in big cities, met interesting people, and was stimulated in ways that a young man in a small town could never hope to approximate.
Rilke’s reply to this young man has become a classic answer to the question of boredom: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
Finding life interesting isn’t dependent upon where you are and who you meet but rather on your own capacity to see deeply into things. Life everywhere is rich enough to be interesting; but we, on our part, have to be interested.