Eating Ourselves Dull

There’s a lull in your day, a small moment of nothing among the busy tides of time. Is it an oasis to indulge, or a terror to smother?

Most of us would talk that a small gap of peace in our over-scheduled lives would be a delight—but my actions, and I’m guessing many of yours too, indicate that we do not believe our own rhetoric.

There are myriad short moments in my day in between my tasks, or in the midst of my tasks that require a pause—those three minutes while your coffee brews, perhaps—where I could indulge in an oasis of unrequirement, if you’ll forgive my intellectual impulse to make up new words where old ones would do.

These are the moments where the beautiful gift of boredom cuts in on us, surprised, like the flicker of light as a bird flutters out of a tree, startling us, and transporting us for a single instant from the dull-grey of the world we abide in to the bright green of the one we were made for.

Except I imagine we don’t see them like that. Boredom is the fount of creativity, the font in which our joys are baptised, the beginning of all great endeavours. But we don’t see it like that. How do I know? Because I don’t see it like that.

Rather we see boredom as an imposition, a terror from the deep to come and snatch us out of our ordered lives and open us with its yawning maw to the eldritch impossibilities of the world as it is. Or, maybe, we simply hate being alone with our own thoughts, and our fears are much more mundane. Either way, we fight to avoid them as much as possible.

You’ll deny this of course. I make us sound like conspicuous cowards, frightened of our own existential shadows. Here’s the proof: when my coffee is brewing and I need to wait for three minutes, what is my most likely activity? I will look at my phone.

There are technological reasons why we do this too—the devices are coded to hack the human psyche and act as ready dopamine dispensers; they are our black-glass dealers who ensure we always return for another ready fix. If only they weren’t so useful, though I am cooling on whether their utility is true usefulness or just good marketing. That is a story for another day, suffice to say there are other forces (and perhaps powers) acting on us in that moment.

Why will I not indulge my moment of nothing? When I do I scribble ideas for articles, or write a few lines of poetry, or—because I’m this kind of geek—consider carefully from several angles who would win in a fight between Kaladin Stormblessed and Kelsier the Survivor. We can duke that one out on Twitter if you like.

I don’t know if I can claim that the banal consideration of those two characters from novels I enjoy is truly better for me than ‘doomscrolling,’ except if I buy my own rhetoric (and I try to) then there is something inherently dignifying and humanising about stories. One of the problems with the machine world we live in—the one that says everything can be categorised down into a small enough part to sell—is that our stories have shrunk and grown into emaciated things of little power, such that we imagine that they are entertainment. Instead, I wish that we would see that stories teach, stories give us patterns, and stories provide paths for us to live.

So why does the waiting, or our lack of it, matter? There are two prongs here, I think. Firstly, the one I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it matters because of what we’ve lost. We struggle to understand how to live in the Between when we have lost our desire, and therefore our capacity, to wait for things. This is my primary reason for promoting Advent as a season, and Holy Saturday as a day for reckoning with.

Secondly, it matters because of why we’ve lost it. We have, in the words of Neil Postman, eaten ourselves dull. Postman was concerned about television in Amusing Ourselves to Death, but he has been proven a Prophet as the decades have continued their steady march towards insipid mediocrity.

Sit with that metaphor for a minute: eating ourselves dull. We are becoming the collective intellectual equivalents of the person who is so large that they can’t move off the sofa, and needs the high calorific contents only found in junk food to sustain themselves, their problems becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. We could ask how this proverbial person got like that, realistically there will be multiple causes for each individual, and each set of them different—that’s how causation tends to work. We could blame them, we could blame the junk food manufacturers, we could blame a number of societal conditions both acute to them and systemic, we could blame their family of origin, and I’m sure a bunch of stuff I haven’t thought of. There would be measures of truth in each one.

We could do the same for us and our consumption of media that makes us duller.

All is not entirely lost—we’re still capable of an increasingly fractious inability to live alongside one another, accelerated by our social platforms,1 that is leading to the destruction of the wonders. So, we’ve got that, at least.

Personally, I notice my ability to read complex texts decreasing, and certainly less than those in the era they were written. I think I should do something about it, but I don’t because that looks hard. It’s easier to medicate against all the things I might have to think if I was alone with myself by having my phone in easy reach.

I’m overstating this for effect—I’m a thinker and writer, I spend a lot of time alone with my thoughts whether in prayer, with a friendly book, or just pen in hand thinking. I couldn’t do any of that if my relationship with my phone was quite as addiction driven as I’ve described.

And yet. I find myself deeply uneasy about my relationship with that piece of black glass I carry around. How much is it affecting me? How much is my conspicuous consumption making me dull?

Questions to ponder, while not holding your phone.

Photo by Anastasia Nelen on Unsplash

1 (though also see this article, an excellent critique of this point)

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