The Burden of Boredom - a theology of “Meh”

A review of Acedia and It’s Discontents:  Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire by R.J. Snell

According to Urban Dictionary:  Meh -An interjection used to imply indifference towards a subject; "a verbal shrug". 

How is it that with all of our time saving devices, instant information, and constant connection to the world of news, entertainment and each other, can we barely find the energy to muster a shrug?  With all the “awesome” around us, why all the boredom?

R.J. Snell in his book entitled Acedia and Its Discontents takes a deep look at the kind of boredom that used to be though of as simple laziness.  Classical philosophers and theologians thought of Acedia as laziness, as a refusal to do work.  Snell had a suspicion that Acedia had more to do with desire - I just can’t make myself care and therefore I can’t summon the energy or will to move or work.

 

As a Catholic Christian, Snell wanted to look deeper than the symptoms and look at the root, and raises some excellent questions like:  

 

What is a person for?  What is work? Is avoiding work a way of avoiding God?

 

Our status as being in the image of God includes the gift of being able to “improve” creation.  To withdraw ourselves from work is to withdraw from our own identity as a gift, and to withdraw from God and the love he has for the world in its physical goodness.  To shrug at the beauty of the world, we are shrugging away God’s glory and our chance to bring creation into the song of God’s glory.  

 

Snell has skillfully uncovered some of the primary motivations and temptations that drives this boredom and avoidance of work:

  • a new vision of self that centers on “freedom”:  

 

  • a view that the world has no meaning and we can take it or leave it

 

  • withdrawal from the world of work and meaning means we retreat in the “world of self”

 

    Another way to visualize Snell’s thesis is to ask:  What if Yo Yo Ma decided to stop making music with his cello?  We would call him selfish.  His talent is a gift to the world that “must” be unwrapped.  If self is the greatest thing we own, we might be tempted to see any self-giving as a loss and that the freedom to keep ourselves to ourselves would be our greatest good.  But this is where boredom becomes the trap.  To keep all our options open and to refuse to be hindered by duty, obligation, or even opportunity, is to keep ourselves closed off from dignity, glory and joy.  To reduce our world to our whims and our own company is a life in prison, ironically guarded by a prison guard named Freedom.  

 

    To be limited by our own willing and freed from any connection to God’s purposes or giving to others, creates what Snell calls “ontological boredom” - at our very core,  we lack desire, believing there is nothing worth desiring. Even the internet with its endless shopping options, a million opinions and news items, endless cat videos, and the degrading allure of “free” peeks at what should be private - evokes more yawns and more shame of wasted energy and wasted time.  

 

    Snell calls this pursuit of freedom and the exercise of it in pursuing various amusements “an unbearable lightness of being.”  In his final chapter entitled “Small is Beautiful”, the author senses that we are tempted to concoct plans for epic charity or service, something noble or great, but miss the small and good right in front of us.  We are runaways or deserters from the small, good things in front of us, unable to see, in the words of Kathleen Norris, “the grace in barren places.”  

 

    With nothing epic on the horizon, we click to the next channel or next thing.  There have been times in a room full of loved ones where I’ve sighed:  there’s nothing on the internet tonight.  I have declared that there is nothing epic, therefore nothing good.  But all around me, including myself, are beings invested with glory and wonder, but like a thirsty man dying next to a well, I just don’t want to fetch a rope and bucket to draw those things out.  

 

    Snell offers great diagnosis, but offers only limited solutions:  working in faith and resting through Sabbath. It is true, that to give ourselves to good work we enjoy our dignity before God.  Yes, by practicing Sabbath, we experience rest as a gift. These are obviously two things that are themselves good and biblical, but don’t quite rise to the level of robust and joyful repentance.  If our boredom is a rejection of God’s glory and our role in it, then repentance has to have some part in this killing of boredom and an embrace of grace-filled effort. 

 

    As a book, it suffers a bit from its previous life as separate magazine articles.  Theologically, some Reformed believers may be put off from its heavy quotation from Papal Encyclicals.  However, much of the teaching quoted from Aquinas, Pope JP2, Pope Benedict and others, could be easy mistaken for a John Calvin or Francis Schaeffer quote!  In the main, the Catholic theology of creation and work is great at upholding the goodness of Creation and material existence, but weak on the effects of sin on our human nature, understanding, and ability to fully reflect the glory of God.  

 

    Pastorally, this book is a breath of fresh air blowing into a stuffy and still windowless basement.  It gets at the root of why we get bored on Summer Break or unlimited data on our phones -   to have an unburdened life of almost total freedom, we are also unburdened with the rhythms of work and community, of grace received and expressed in self-giving.  In work and service, we are most ourselves and we are most open to receiving the built-in glories of our existence and identity as sub-creators with God.  It is intellectually deep and probes our hearts, wills and motivations.  Read alongside Protestant/Reformed writers like Steven Garber, Wendell Berry, Kevin DeYoung and others, this will help the Christian wrestle with the epidemic of “meh” which is sneaking up on us all.