Saturday, April 14, 2012

In Praise of Boredom

"Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike."

Those famous words by Walter Pater have acted as a kind of banner for legions of aesthetes, dilletantes and thrill-seekers since they were first published in 1868. They are plausible enough, at first sight. Isn't it true that we are all under sentence of death? Isn't it true that every moment is precious beyond all calculation, and that each might be our last? Shouldn't we do our best to keep the lens of perception clear, not to cloud it with habit and preconception, to brush away the gauzy film of familiarity from our eyes? Shouldn't we seek out new and fugitive sensations, never content to simply fall into a rut of repetition?

But then, as soon as we have resolved upon this, another image might swim before our eyes; the figure of the jaded old roué and dandy, who looks out at the world through irony-heavy eyes, who sighs with weariness at the staleness and cliché all around him, and for whom life has become nothing but a never-ending, undendurable bore.

There are two ways of responding to our natural tendency to boredom. One is to seek ever new experiences. The other is to persevere in our familiar experiences, seeking to peel away the layers of skin that have formed over our imagination, seeking always to rediscover their primal freshness.

It is not the world that grows dull, but us.

I think of this often when I go to Mass. I love Mass, and I know that I should participate fully, with my heart and mind as well as my voice and body.

But it is almost impossible not to become blasé.

There is nothing more thrilling, more important, in the whole world than the moment when the priest intones: "Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you." This moment is infinitely more wonderful and precious than an eclipse of the sun, seeing the aurora borealis, or the last-minute goal in a World Cup soccer game.

And yet- how often have I found myself planning the rest of my day during those words, or imagining a clever answer I might have made in an argument, or something equally banal!

How owlishly I blink at the consecrated host before me, as the communicants make their way to receive it! I would travel a great distance and wait in a long queue to see the Shroud of Turin. But here is the reality of which that is (or may be) simply an image-- how am I not struck with awe?

How do I find myself thinking of the Lord's Prayer, the prayer Christ himself instructed us to use, as a baby's prayer, a beginner's prayer, and find a more subtle and delicate savour in some mere human composition?

Even outside the realm of the sacred and the sacramental, I think this truth applies.

I went to the film Tron Legacy recently. It wasn't a great film, I didn't even stay till the end, but it was visually enchanting, set (for the most part) in a virtual reality of unearthly, fluorescent light.

At one point, a character who has lived all her life in this otherwordly beauty asks the main character, who is an exile from our own society, if our sky is as beautiful as she imagines it to be.

He replies something like: "More beautiful than you can even imagine."

How can we ever stop looking at the sky? How can we ever stop marvelling at it?

Whenever my bus passes the river Liffey, I insist upon looking up from my book and gazing for a few moments, savouring the way the waves crinkle along its surface, its unique colour, the pleasing way it recedes into a point on the horizon. I enjoy the feeling of passing a threshold, migrating from the Northside to the Southside of the city (or vice versa) in a moment.

Whenever I pass a crossroads, I make myself pay attention to the concrete symbolism of the thing-- a point where, every moment, so many different lives and stories intersect.

We grow weary too easily. We grow weary of our own country and culture, and spend ridiculous amounts of money prospecting other continents for a whiff of exoticism. We grow tired of jokes with a set-up and a punch-line, and congratulate ourselves on preferring observational and surreal humour. We lose our joy in stories, even though the dreamworld of storytelling is a territory of never-ending marvel, and plume ourselves on seeking out vignettes and plotless narratives and character studies instead.

We should remind ourselves more often that our first parents grew tired of Eden, and longed for the one thing they could not have.

I think boredom is good. Boredom is promising. Boredom is the fatigue that comes before the second wind. Boredom is the mist that passes over your eyes before your vision is made more vivid, more heightened.

So when I am bored at Mass, or find myself going through the motions in prayer, I am not discouraged, or even annoyed at myself (as long as I know the boredom is not mere inattention or carelessness). I feel more like an athelete in training who welcomes the strain in his mucles and ligaments, knowing that he is harvesting greater energies for the future-- that he is, in fact, remaking himself.

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