The Emergence of Meaning in the Confines of Boredom

What is boredom and how it manifests in COVID-19 times. In self-isolation perception changes and we perceive boredom in a new way.

The page contains the following errors / Grafik von So Jin Park
The page contains the following errors / Grafik von So Jin Park

Given the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis with its numerous deaths, the “state of emergency” new-normality, collapsing health systems, the conditions which vulnerable population groups are facing and last but not least the lack of political strategies to give us a sense of hope, the boredom we experience every day during the lockdown seems to be a banal affair. In the 21st century, the century of overstimulation and interconnection, we associate boredom with a child’s tantrum, a whim, an ephemeral and infantile mood. 

We are bored and eager for entertainment. The recess bell, extended indefinitely, turns out to be a monotonous drone. Unlimited free time, what we longed for for years, now seems to be simply dead time: everything but a synonym for freedom.  

Freedom requires a balance of contrasts

More precisely, freedom requires a balance of contrasts: one is free “in regards to something”. Meanwhile “absolute” freedom can be terribly distressing like a blinding white light. Here the paradox of the lockdown becomes explicit: while we complain about the limitations of various civil liberties, we are absolutely free within our four walls, especially at arranging our time as we please.

The restrictions of the freedoms “outside” are unsettling, as we are prohibited from meeting the people we love, enjoying our social life, moving freely in public areas, working and generally feeling that we live in a safe shared social space. On the other hand, the expansion (almost to the absolute) of freedom “inside” puts us at the mercy of free time, which sometimes drowns us in vast boredom. 

When Monday and Friday taste like Sunday

While under normal conditions adult boredom is faced with “patience and good humor” (being stuck in traffic, the queue at the supermarket, in a waiting room or on the subway), in these extraordinary situations (which nevertheless will establish a new normality) it becomes as unbearable and agonizing as it was in our childhood.

This time, however, boredom is wrapped in honest uncertainty. Even if we, adults, uphold a certain tranquility on the subject, monotony and emptiness become more evident during a “state of emergency” (which, however, resembles more sitting in the waiting room next to the surgery). When both Monday and Friday taste like Sunday, hope becomes bittersweet.

But in the heart of boredom lies much more than the sentiment of a spoilt child. Although nagging about it on social media might appear as middle class grumbling, boredom is not a banality, a class privilege or a cranky “first world problem.” In the heart of boredom there’s a profound emptiness which longs to be filled: the quest for meaning which is inherent to human existence.

Crisis of meaning

Therefore the coronavirus crisis is not only an economic, political and social crisis; it is, overall, a crisis of meaning, that is, it threatens our capacity to produce meaning in the face of the menacing uncertainty that castrates our inspiration and freedom. It’s not easy to overcome boredom because it displays an omnipresence of nothingness. It unveils the lack of meaning that pervades our daily lives and which we try to cover with the adult narrative of constant productivity, just like an attempt to cover the sun with a finger.

Productivity is a powerful, double-edged sword although we usually see only one of them. The demand to “be productive” that stems from our workplaces (and, even worse, the self-imposed overproductivity rooting in our capitalist or Christian morality bad consciousness), pressing us to get the most of our leisure time, is the last blow we inflict upon our body, a body already pierced by the “fatigue society” that Byung-Chul Han has analyzed.

Other side of productivity

This monotony is expressed in the faces of the passengers on the buses going home after work: their tired gaze speaks for their exhausted body. As Marx pointed out, we produce our meanings of living and that is our “species-being” (Gattunsgwesen). But exactly this should be our way to self-realization and not one of escape from our lack of self-knowledge and existential direction (our masochistic workaholism is in fact a normalized form of alienation). Thus it is necessary to resignify the concept of productivity, taking it away from an exclusively material viewpoint and start paying attention to its other side. (Even the act of resignification itself is already a form of productivity, namely an exercise of our power of transformation).

“Productivity is in the details”: In reappropriating a corny slogan, we are aiming to conceive productivity as the capacity to create, transform and provide vital meaning. This is possible when based on an “anarchism of sense” where meaning is not predetermined or given. In other words, affirming that maybe there is no inherent meaning to life. This is certainly a tough statement, but it doesn’t have to be sad. Once a mentor said to me: “I am not going to tell you that life is beautiful, but what I do believe is that life is always struggle.” That resonated deeply with me and my naïve sympathy for existentialism.

So, I believe there is a constant struggle to give meaning to one’s life, even (and especially so) in the details, day by day, at microscopic scale. Let’s pay attention for a while to everything we are doing during these lockdown days not to “get bored”: this profound, silent productivity, which allows us to give direction to our day. The desire to find things to do, to stick to something, work on personal projects, learn new things, enjoy art, films, music and dance is much more of a driving force or flux than it is a passive temptation we are victims of. It motivates us to actively produce meaning and also to “produce” ourselves exercising our creativity.

Micro-productions of meaning

This creative and expressive struggle, these micro-productions of meaning demonstrate our condition as human beings and this is, even more so, a trace of our childlike condition. We are children because we can imagine possible worlds: just like a child in the garden can put together a playful universe with a stick and a leaf, we too can produce meaning in a world that is falling apart.

Given the current absence of meaningful narratives that could weave this critical situation into a more or less coherent conceptual fabric, we must take things in our own hands (after neurotically washing them for 20 seconds, of course). Heroically, our human creativity arises in the form of small activities such as learning how to bake a strawberry cake, making some handicrafts or starting a beautiful poetry project.

Those little details that many of us, middle class lockdowners are discovering are important seeds of meaning which often grow well in the soil of art. How much worse the quarantine would be without music, dance, movies and other tiny flashes of beauty! While doctors are being applauded from the balconies for keeping physical bodies alive, artists allow our soul to breathe. 

The cultural sector, neglected in countries like Peru and so irrelevant to the capitalist mentality of productivity, provides us with a true medicine to remain sane. Art is very contagious, but in regards to human spirit; for it allows us to cultivate bonds of empathy and meaning that give us the proximity and warmth of a hug. Art inspires, motivates and underlines the urgency of resignification, of forging a shared aesthetic feeling, of strengthening communities of meaning in the midst of chaos, of weaving universes of fiction in order to imagine possible worlds, of not losing hope, or perhaps even losing it, but never alone, always accompanied.

Improvising Adulthood

Therefore, what is left but to get bored? When the great modern narratives collapse like houses of cards under a sneeze, not everything is lost. We still have the soothing bedtime stories we heard as children, microstories, perhaps haikus, riddles that we can now create and share. There is no necessity to achieving a great enterprise during this lockdown, to write a novel, produce an album, learn French or Italian. Watering plants, drawing, cooking, doing sports, playing, meditating or changing diapers can be the success stories of the day, as well as composing a song, writing down insights, poems, daydreaming, etc.

There is only one truth that is very clear to me: we are all improvising. And one existential feature of adulthood (which we carefully hide underneath our self-confident display in the streets) now becomes more evident: we have no idea how to live, and during this pandemic this “secret” surfaces. I believe that as we become more aware that adulthood consists of improvisation (“act as if you know what you are doing, until you yourself believe it”), we should embrace the fact that we are simply big children who create their own worlds, accompanied, perhaps on some grey days, by a little tantrum.

Translated from Spanish by Miro Denck.

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