I was asked recently to explain what I’m doing here. At first I thought the inquiry was directed at some big cosmic question, like, What are you doing here, on earth? Or, likewise, What is the meaning of your life? Assuming that to be the question, I answered honestly: I haven’t a clue. But my interlocutor was not asking the metaphysical question. The question was directed to my writing, as in, What do you write about? It is a more embarrassing question to answer, actually. Embarrassing because, again, I haven’t a clue. People really don’t expect you to be able to answer the big cosmic questions. The questions have been around too long and everyone knows there aren’t really any answers. But the more focused question, like what do you write about? or the dinner party question, What do you do? those questions are due an answer. (The dinner party question drives me crazy. What do I do? I do what everyone else does: eat, sleep, shit, work, die. The real question being asked is: Are you above or below my socio-economic caste?–a disdainful and not-so-coy method of evaluation. But, for god’s sake, just come out and ask it straight-up.) The question, again, was What are I doing here? Here being this forum, TNB, or likewise my blog, or other such efforts. What do I write about? What am I doing here? The question achingly begs the sad answer: I haven’t a clue.
The pursuit continued: “I mean,” she said, “but…well, what do you write about?” To which I replied, “Look, my writing, like my life is a free-for-all. It comes and goes, meanders, twists and turns and just generally follows the topography of my experience, up, down and around.” I sounded like an idiot, which truthfully, isn’t (sometimes) far from fact. I’ve been called evasive, this perhaps being a case in point. But it’s not–completely–about being evasive. In truth, it is because I have spent most of my adult life trying to wrestle questions to the ground and beat them up; but, time and again, I end up being the one who gets a thrashing. It’s all part of this “examined life” quest I’m on. I’m not keen on taking anything for granted, so I’m always attempting to sort things out. And my life is my biggest challenge. Unfortunately, I haven’t sorted out all that much; but there is one thing, I think, I’ve pinned to the mat: Much of my life has been spent trying to avoid boredom.
I remember I used to proudly declare that, “I’ve never been bored.” It was a statement delivered with much the same self-serving gusto one hears when over-achieving mid-class poseurs declare, “We don’t own an TV.” or “I only watch PBS.” It makes my eyes roll and my gut contract. “I’ve never been bored” now has the same effect on me. Agghh, what pretentiousness! (I also used to pontificate, in a similar vein, that boredom, like guilt, was a manufactured emotion.) I now understand that boredom is the foundation of everything. It is the pearl-constructing grit in the oyster’s shell, the red phosphorous that makes the match explode. Avoiding boredom is the motivation of modern life. I say modern life because I’m not sure this–boredom–has always been the case. The word boredom didn’t even appear in the language until 1852, when it showed up six times in Dicken’s novel, Bleak House. Given that the English language has been around in a form we (might) recognize since Chaucer (c1340-1400), it strikes me as dead-on that this notion is rather recent, that boredom is a symptom of modern existence.
It’s not an original thought. Heidegger, as have others, spent a lot of time on the subject. “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference,” he wrote. “This boredom reveals being as a whole.” I don’t want to get up on a soap box, nor do I wish to write a thesis on the existential significance of boredom on modern life. That would be boring, would it not? And that is precisely the point. We should avoid that. Let’s not do something that is boring. To the opening question: What am I doing here? I now have an answer: I’m trying to out-sprint boredom. Does my life have meaning? Only to the degree I can appreciate Heidegger’s “remarkable indifference.”
We live in a consumer society fueled by the economics of production. What do I consume, if not things which hold the potential to ameliorate the consequences of boredom? To wit: my iPod, my Pandora station(s), the vacation I take, the pets I keep (I don’t consume them, of course, just their distraction quotient–unless the fish in the fish tank get too big, then all bets are off), and so on. And what do we produce? Everything we think we can sell, from jet planes to running shoes–anything that will distract us from the potential for remarkable indifference.
Boredom is, paradoxically, the disease and the antidote. We might be terrified by the thought that nothing remains that is new, a thought which prompts (some of) us to create the new. I have long held that creativity is a key to something profound in existence. What I never really understood is that creativity is the response, should one be inclined to respond, to the threat of remarkable indifference. Creativity is the fear of the same styled into the unsame. What am I doing here?–both the practical and the highfalutin metaphysical answer is: wrestling against the threat of boredom through creativity. I am now fully prepared for the next inane dinner party interrogation.