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With drama currently pulsing from every corner of the globe, Ingeborg van Teeseling suggests its time for us to focus on boredom.
What a week we’ve had; glued to the television for the latest news on the massacres in France and Mali, fully engaged in discussions about war, states of emergency and extremism and what to do about it. Makes you feel alive, doesn’t it? It might be horrible and gruesome and terrifying, but at least it isn’t boring, right?
Can we be honest here, at least on the page, just between you and me? We wake up in the morning, switch on our phones, check the news and if nothing has happened, we are almost disappointed, aren’t we? Not that you want people to die in terrible ways; you wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy, but it wakes you up, gets you out of bed. You almost don’t need coffee anymore, or a bracing cold shower, or a row with your beloved. All the senses are active and working, adrenaline racing through your veins, the fight-or-flight response ready to go. It seems we are all part of it, caught in a world-wide obsession with turmoil.
It is interesting how we seem to be addicted to drama.
We thrive on stress, on a confrontation with the extreme. The world, for us, is a theatre, where daily performances take place. They grab our attention best if they come with fear and loathing, with the shock-horror of killing and dying, preferably in ever new and different ways. We are constantly in a state of hyper-arousal, hooked on the hormones and neurotransmitters produced by anxiety and excitement.
I am not saying that it is amusement, flicking channels for bullet holes and body parts.
It is actually far more dangerous than that.
We welcome the drama as a way to escape our daily lives, the repetitive boredom of jobs and relationships and cooking meatballs on Wednesday.
In 1930, between the two world wars, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a book called The Conquest of Happiness. I think it should be compulsory reading for the politicians who are now deciding on airstrikes and boots on the ground. He said: “Wars, pogroms and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbours have been found better than nothing. Half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of boredom.” Russell warned, “A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the same thrill,” and advocated something he called “fruitful monotony,” a state where we have learned to see that boredom can bring creativity and knowledge.
We teach our children that boredom is bad, inexcusable, almost a sin. “Go and do something,” we implore, and point to their toys, their iPad, their siblings. If that doesn’t work, we sigh and start entertaining them: take them to a movie, play a game, kick the ball around. Anything to keep them from doing what Russell promoted: doing nothing with nobody all alone by yourself. Boredom scares us, because it takes us inside our heads. Suddenly we start thinking and feeling, and asking questions; wondering about the world. The surprising queries that children famously come up with usually originate in boredom: Why am I me; Why is the sky blue; Can animals think? They are questions that go the heart of the human condition. Asking them explains the world to us and our place in it. It also makes us understand that other people are different, but still like us.
They eat, drink, poo, feel pain, have dreams, make up stories, love. This is why philosophy, the thing that comes out of boredom, scares the bejesus out of the powers that be. Any powers that be. It is much more difficult to kill if you’ve had a good conversation with yourself from time to time.
Drama takes us away from our internal dialogue, and from the questions that it poses. It tempts us with ideas of grandeur. In an age of celebrity, fifteen minutes of fame are what we strive for, even if it comes in the reprehensible form of blowing yourself up in a packed concert hall.
We abhor the idea of being just a face in the crowd, an Average Joe, with a normal, boring, ordinary life.
We aim for the exceptional, the extraordinary, for something that will prove that we are special. I write to be read, to be seen and heard. It is a way of screaming “Look at me; I am unique, I am alive, I am important, I count!” You are a long time dead, or so the saying goes, and in the short time we are here we want to put our stamp on the world. If we can’t be Shakespeare or Gandhi, we look for other ways to prove that we matter, that we are exceptional, that we are worthy of being remembered.
We all want our place in the history books. History teaches us that it is easier to book your place there when you are Hitler, Stalin or Genghis Khan.
Everyday people are usually forgotten, and that is what we fear most. We burn our faces into the memories of people when we hit them, not when we are nice and kind. But as Russell said, even the extreme becomes boring in the end. We need more and more of it to give us the same thrill. And that is why my antidote to the escalating violence we are seeing at the moment is normality.
Meatballs are great, even on Wednesdays.
Let us praise boredom and resist the wailing siren call of drama.