November 7, 2023 // Perspective

If You’re Bored, It’s Really Your Own Fault

Chesterton would have agreed with me. If you’re bored, it’s your own fault. “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject,” he wrote in his early book, “Heretics.” “The only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”

Who is, I’d add, not only bored but boring.

When our children were small, they would sometimes tell their mother and me, in that whining, keening “I can’t bear another second of life” voice, that they were bored. This bothered my wife more than me. I would tell them that if they were bored, it was their own fault, then go back to whatever I was doing.

They’d eventually find something to do. They’d read, or draw, or build forts in the woods, or create complicated Lego structures, or bike and scooter round the neighborhood. We sometimes had to drag them away from what they were doing to get them to dinner.

Sometimes I’d promise that we’d take the dogs to the park or get ice cream, and if it was the weekend, we might go to the science center or the museum of natural history. But those were not to be taken as cures for boredom.

Because the usual state of life should interest us. The world is an interesting place. Everyone we meet is an interesting person. Not always on the surface, of course. On the surface, many things and people are as dull as dishwater.

But if you look more closely, with more patience and attention, you will find things to interest and even fascinate you. Even dishwater would interest you, if you knew about all the interesting germs, and what they’ll do to you if you don’t clean your dishes, and the chemical reactions, and how dish detergent developed as a product and the way it affects the environment.

On this subject, my friend, the painter Timothy Jones, once wrote that “as students, The Bored are practically impossible to teach.” Very true, when it’s a disposition, a cast of mind or character. And that’s sad. Because they feel the subject is too boring to bother with, they can’t learn. They can’t see all the cool stuff there is to see in the world.

Fortunately, not everyone who acts bored is genuinely bored. Sometimes people act bored because they don’t know anything or feel they’re in over their heads, and they cover that by acting like the subject’s beneath them (i.e., boring). The teacher should be able to reach them, with care and effort.

But the ones who just can’t be interested, can’t be reached and taught. It’s a mind I can’t even comprehend. The world’s such an interesting place; how can you find anything boring?

Maybe too hard, but that’s just an interesting subject you’re not ready for. Maybe it seems odd or weird, but that’s just an interesting subject you may have to twist yourself around to understand. Maybe not aligned with the way your interests, gifts, and mind are wired, but that’s just an interesting subject for which you’re not suited, but one that, if you try, will give you what pleasure you can get from it.

And if you really do find something that just doesn’t interest you, you should know enough to say, “Not for me, I’m sorry to say,” not “It’s boring.”

This leads me to one of the loveliest passages in Chesterton. It comes in “Orthodoxy,” the book he wrote after “Heretics” as a kind of sequel. He’s writing about the way things on earth repeat themselves, like the sun rising every morning. Modern materialists believe that means the world is mechanical (that is, dead).

Chesterton insists that things stay the same because they’re alive, and that points us to the truth about the universe. “A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life,” he writes. “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.”

That’s funny, but here’s the lovely part: “But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

David Mills is columnist for OSV News. He writes from Pennsylvania.

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