Fight boredom and loneliness by making a commitment
Fresno Bee, January 9, 2015
Boredom and loneliness are awful afflictions. Bored and lonely people bide their time in office cubicles and nursing homes. There have even been reports of people calling 911 simply to talk to someone. Boredom can lead people to kill time with dangerous and malicious activities. Loneliness easily becomes despair.
Love and responsibility provide a remedy. The cure for loneliness and boredom is found in ethical relations, in the cares, concerns and connections that make us fully human. We are curious social beings who need human connection and meaningful activity.
Consider, for a moment, an unfortunate inhabitant of a desert island. That lonely castaway would have no ethical obligations whatsoever. You can’t even be un-ethical on a desert island. To be a liar you need someone to talk to. You can’t cheat, steal, rape or murder when you are alone. Nor can you care, love, teach or learn. A moral life is a social life.
It is natural to dream of escaping from society. Adolescents long for a world without constraints. Busy adults occasionally dream of solitude and silence. But without a supporting social world to return to, solitary freedom becomes dreadful and desolate.
The horror of loneliness and boredom becomes clear when we recall that we use isolation and inaction to punish people — from kids on “time out” to criminals thrown into dungeons. Even dogs get bored and lonely when left home all day.
It is true that there is much to be learned from being alone and mindfully doing nothing. We can be refreshed by meditation, by silent retreats or by hiking alone in the woods. But solitude should properly inspire solicitude and renew our social lives. Voluntary seclusion is quite different from the loneliness and boredom of those who are abandoned and excluded.
Some people confuse freedom with happiness. We often celebrate the free, unencumbered individual — the carefree traveler who roams the world without loyalties, limits or cares. But freedom without responsibility is lonely. Friendships and families are destroyed by those who refuse to limit their freedom and commit to the constraints of social life.
Boredom is also the result of too much freedom. Boredom arises when we have too much time, too many choices, and not enough responsibility. Those who must balance a variety of social duties don’t have time to be bored. Duty and obligation may be irritating and difficult; but they rarely leave us bored.
It is true that we quickly tire of dull, repetitive drudgery. But the worst kind of boredom is experienced by those who have nothing to do and all day to do it. This is why unemployment is devitalizing. It is no surprise that those who are lonely and bored turn to drugs, alcohol or sexual promiscuity, looking for short-term fixes to their existential problem.
We also turn to the flickering images of the digital world for a substitute for social connection. Television and other media provide a surrogate social experience. Many of us know more about the characters in our favorite shows than we know about our neighbors. We may not feel lonely in the digital age. But watching other people — fictional people — live is a lonely substitute for actual social life.
The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once claimed that boredom was the root of all evil. Kierkegaard suggested that this is the lesson of Genesis. Adam was lonely and needed Eve. Eve was bored, so she flirted with the serpent. And so on.
The punishment of being expelled from Eden was the need to work for a living and raise children. The moral is this: when we are engaged in productive work and burdened with social responsibilities, there is no time for boredom or mischief.
If we do not want to be bored and alone, we must constrain our freedom by making commitments and taking on obligations. We are social animals who find meaning and purpose in responsibility, in caring for others, and in work. So the next time you feel bored or lonely, make a commitment, take on a burden or create a social obligation. A good way to start would be to turn off the TV and reach out to someone who is as lonely and bored as you are.