Years ago, as a young college couple, my husband and I often had fellow students over for dinner. Once the nerve-wracking experience of getting a coordinated meal on the table was over, I enjoyed the company. Except, perhaps, for the young man who came for lunch and stayed for dinner. During that epically long afternoon, someone mentioned reading somewhere that the more intelligent the individual, the more susceptible they were to boredom. "That's true," remarked our boring guest. "I get bored very easily."
It was the funniest thing he'd said all afternoon. But I doubted the proposition, even then, because it seemed to me that one sign of intelligence might be a lively general interest. As Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, in a little couplet called "Happy Thought," The world is so full of a number of things, / I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings. (Written, incidentally, by a man who was sick for most of his life and spent interminable days in bed.)
It's perhaps a sign that civilization has passed its zenith when boredom becomes a subject of interest. Alan Caruba founded the Boring Institute in 1984 as a joke, but soon found himself the world's foremost ennui expert. Likewise, DVD producer Alan Ward was amused to hear that an event called the Interesting Conference had been canceled (for lack of interest?) and tweeted that someone ought to arrange a Boring Conference instead. To his surprise, dozens of his Twitter followers responded with enthusiasm. Last December it happened: Boring 2010, a riveting seven hours of topics including a reading of all 415 colors in a paint catalogue and an exposition of Mr. Ward's tie collection.
Media coverage of the conference has opened up speculation into the causes, effects, and meaning of boredom. Is it true, for instance, that people can literally be bored to death? We don't know yet, because the subject hasn't received much scientific study.
But Caruba, for one, is convinced that one major cause for boredom is standardized education. "Schools manage to turn [learning] into a form of mental torture. I would say almost any child eventually finds school incredibly boring." Even many educators would agree, and most have their candidates for likely culprits: politicization, standardization, lectures and textbooks, a narrow focus on "the basics." But the main problem may be in the child himself, or at least a misunderstanding of how he learns.
We're often told that children by nature possess a "sense of wonder," which is too easily snuffed out. Wonder is indeed part of our makeup, but it doesn't necessarily flourish naturally. A baby can spend a full minute poking at a handful of leaves, and then move delightedly on to a pile of paper scraps. But a preschooler has progressed beyond the basic sensory stimuli. Idealistic educators focus on the child, striving to awaken her inherent capacity for wonder. The problem is, wonder doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the individual is not created to be endlessly fascinated with herself. In fact, self-absorption is the surest route to boredom.
During my years of homeschooling, I was continually getting excited about things I had already "learned" in elementary school (minus the excitement). Somewhere in young-adulthood, my wonder switch had been turned on. Growing faith in a personal universe created by a God who was never bored had something-if not everything-to do with that. "O Lord, how manifold [fascinating, various, bizarre, beautiful, dangerous, exciting] are your works!" (Psalm 104:24). There is not the tiniest corner of the world that isn't packed with interest, if we only knew. Boredom is less a matter of what's going on around us than what's happening, or not happening, inside.
Christians should be "as happy as kings" with the earth and all its fullness; after all, we are kings-in-training. The more secure in our calling, the more we can give attention to our surroundings. All creation waits with bated breath for our revelation (Romans 8:19)-we should at least return the compliment.
Email Janie B. Cheaney