Restless in Reality: Boredom and True Leisure

Eric Metaxas | BreakPoint | Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Restless in Reality: Boredom and True Leisure


For the past few days, I have been discussing the impact of mass media. I have told you about its ubiquitous and self-referential qualities. I also pointed out that the problems go beyond objectionable content to the very way that consumption of this media and popular culture it transmits can shape our souls.

All this leads to an obvious question: What do we do about it? Now, some people feel called to limit their and their family’s exposure to digital media. I think we should all think about that. Others feel called to work within the medium and try to change it — or at least create alternatives to the dreck that’s available.

What we are called to do is use discernment and to not ingest this stuff mindlessly. Avoiding that requires thinking about boredom and leisure from a biblical point of view.

Twenty years ago, Bruce Springsteen famously sang “57 channels (and nothin’ on).” While an updated version would refer to “300 channels and countless websites, and nothin’ on,” the dissatisfaction would remain the same, if not worse.

The exponential growth in access to media hasn’t reduced boredom — if anything, precisely the opposite has happened. We require more and more stimulation to stave off the sense of unease. As theologian John Milbank has pointed out, our pre-occupation with novelty and variety has diminished our capacity for “sustained attention to detail and creative use” of the world around us.

Or as philosopher Thomas Naughton put it: “Too much entertainment makes one bored, restless and anxious.”

We are bored, restless and anxious because very little holds our attention for very long. For the Christian, watching something to simply stave off boredom should prompt some soul-searching. We should ask ourselves why we are bored and, more to the point, why we crave novelty and variety for their own sake.

Most likely, it’s because we have forgotten how to rest. For most people, “leisure” is synonymous with inactivity. It’s what we experience when we aren’t “doing something.” Since we think of leisure as being passive, it makes sense that we fill our “leisure time” with passive entertainments.

But that’s not how Christianity understands leisure. In his book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper called leisure a “condition of the soul.” It’s not the same thing as inactivity or quiet. It is, “The disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.”

Leisure, he writes, consists of “a celebratory, approving, lingering gaze of the inner eye on the reality of creation.” It’s about seeing the world as God made it, affirming its goodness, and thus transcending the hum-drum and cares of our everyday existence.

According to Pieper, “only someone who has lost the spiritual power to be at leisure can be bored.”

That doesn’t mean that entertainment is bad per se. The problem, as Naughton says, is that “leisure understood only in terms of entertainment lacks meaning that is satisfactory to the human heart and mind.” It can’t satisfy us no matter how much of it we shove down our gullet.

Thus, we should ask ourselves why we watch a certain TV show or visit a certain website. Is it to relax or unwind, or is it because we are restless and afraid of being still or, even worse, afraid of the real?

Were these thoughts helpful to you? Please go to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and let us know in the comment section.

Publication date: May 23, 2012

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