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.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

11 responses to “What Am I Doing Here?”

  1. Brad Listi says:

    thought-provoking, as always.

    interesting to think of boredom as a prerequisite for creativity, which i believe to some degree it is. certainly writing has its fair share of it. the willingness to sit there.

    i’m a meditator, or i try to be, and it scares me how much control my mind has over me. how anxious the act of doing nothing can make me on a monday morning. the need to get up and do something. trying to sit still for just 20 minutes.

    20 minutes.

    and there’s this pull in my chest, urging me to get up.

    the internet is hell on writing in a lot of ways. i can’t think of a more apt manifestation of what you’re talking about. the internet has neuro-chemical implications that haven’t been totally quantified yet.

    as for people asking people what they do….well….i think what you say is partially true. in weaker moments, people ask the question for the purposes of comparison. but i think it’s also natural. it’s shorthand for who are you? learning what someone’s profession or vocation is can be helpful in getting to know them. it’s that old saying: it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. what a person does — even if they’re only doing it to pay the rent — is always, in some way, a reflection of what’s important to them.

  2. Doug Bruns says:

    B ~ Thanks for reading and commenting. I’m a meditate too, or used to. I sat for years and then after going to a retreat where I sat for eight hours, I packed up my cushion and walked away, succumbing to the pull of which you speak. I know that all aspects of my life were better with those minutes of quiet, yet I resist. What is life, if not a cycle of pull and push? My, too early for all this. I need more coffee.

    • Josh Axelrad says:

      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.

      I like this. Creative work as a kind of productive reverence – productive both for the worker and for (one prays) the work’s audience. A means of prompting interested attention.

      Cushions work to similar effect. But until I can sit still all the time I need something to read.

      • Doug Bruns says:

        Give me something to read. Let’s raise our glasses to that!

        “Creative work as a kind of productive reverence…” That’s a beautiful phrase. Thanks.
        And thanks for reading and the comment.

        • Josh Axelrad says:

          As coincidence would have it I’m reading Rami Shapiro’s translation and exegesis of Ecclesiastes at the recommendation of a TNB writer and editor. It’s a good thing to read, if inclined.

  3. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    I’m somewhat annoyed at you, Doug. You’ve given me a lot to think about but – as-yet uncaffeinated and post-kiddie-trick-or-treating – I’m ill-equipped to follow all the threads my brain has spawned in response to your words. Frustrating.

    At first, I almost quibbled about creativity versus curiosity, thinking that I take vacations and “do stuff” to learn, to absorb, to expand. It’s not this boredom-fueled rocket, needing escape velocity to motivate my ass into gear. But, really, I don’t move on to something new until I’ve drained the interest from that which I’m currently working on. So, by God, you may be right!

    As for “the question”, I used to think it was an East Coast thing. Invariably, the introductions at Manhattan parties would be 1. This is so-and-so, 2. ah, nice to meet you, 3. how do you know insert-hostname-here, and – BAM! – 4. what do you do? Once I made it west of the Mississippi, the question would surface much further downstream (long after microbrew-of-choice) and was usually in reference to hobbies. I had gotten quite good at dead-pan delivery of ridiculous and obscure professions like, “animal pornographer – we use visual stimulation to assist in in-captivity breeding programs.”

    Hm. Now *that* was some creativity….

    • Doug Bruns says:

      A ~ So sorry to have caused frustration. There is enough in the world without me adding to it! That said, anytime I can tweak an honest-to-goodness animal pornographer, I gotta take a shot. Glad to spark the neural pathways, and their attendant surges of creativity. I am here to serve.

      Thanks for stopping in and the comment. Now, being a soft touch for visual stimulation, you must forward a link.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      A ~ And another thing. Your comment about curiosity, it made me curious. I don’t know if you caught my essay, An Adequate Idea, but curiosity is high in my pantheon of attributes. I was excited to see you use it as a possible, in some fashion, challenge to creativty. That’s an interesting idea and perhaps you are on to something. Anyway, I just wanted to acknowledge your insight. It’s worth a good pondering.

  4. kristen elde says:

    As a person perpetually afraid of getting/remaining bored–a person who feels deeply fearful at the faintest of suggestion of something like boredom dawning–I liked this. It made me feel less alone. (Go creativity!)

    Thank you.

    • Doug Bruns says:

      K ~ Fear is a great motivator, eh? It’s more intrusive than boredom certainly, getting one’s attention focused front and center. Thanks for reading the comment.

  5. Brian Eckert says:

    I’ve often thought that my life is one grand effort to avoid boredom, and struggled to define whether it is an innate human quality or a manifestation of modern society.

    America, to me, with its frenetic pace, its constant distractions, is the epitome of boredom avoidance. We are the busiest people on earth, yet one could argue that we are certainly no happier than other societies.

    I’m left with this question running through my head: Might boredom, if left unalleviated, be beneficial? Or is it cancerous to the soul? Or, does it have no net effect?

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