On Boredom | Nuar Alsadir | Granta

On Boredom

Nuar Alsadir

Years ago, when my two daughters and I would come upon an obstacle such as a lamppost while walking down the street, we would play a game that involved calling out opposites as we briefly let go of one another’s hands: ‘Hot and cold!’ ‘Day and night!’ One time my older daughter cried, ‘Love and hate!’ Love and hate aren’t opposites, I explained, because they are both passionate. The opposite of love would be indifference. She understood immediately. When we encountered the next obstacle, she cried, ‘Love and indifference!’

Along the same lines, the opposite of boredom is not excitement, but calm. Boredom is a restless state of mind, generally marked by dissatisfaction. Just think of how often you feel uninterested in something without being bored. The monotonous car ride from Chicago through Midwest cornfields to the New England college I attended was never boring to me, but a fertile ground for daydreams. When your imagination is free to roam, you can lose yourself in reverie. But when you’re bored, you’re unable to fantasize. You can’t even think.

‘I never quite hear what people say who bore me,’ observes the writer Édouard Levé. What he gets at here is the psychological goal of boredom – tuning things out, although the person boredom tunes out most successfully is oneself. Boredom is a symptom of an unconscious process – an internal muting, which leaves the conscious mind with both a lack and an itch to re-find what is missing.

From a psychoanalytical perspective, boredom is less a response to something in the external world than a defense against something in the internal world, an impulse or desire that is taboo – often sexual or aggressive in nature – which evokes guilt, anxiety, or fear of punishment. Boredom evades those negative emotions by blocking off thought that might lead to the prohibited impulses or desires that trigger them. ‘The inhibition of fantasy,’ writes psychoanalyst Martin Wangh, ‘often occurs because of an unconscious fear that fantasy might lead to action of libidinal or aggressive nature – an impulse to masturbate or strike out – which in turn would bring about danger or pain.’

As children, we learn to use words, then to watch what we say. We move on to control what we think and feel. Thoughts and feelings travel together. One way to get rid of an overwhelming feeling (like anxiety, or guilt) is to repress the thought it is attached to (the desire or impulse that makes us anxious or guilty). That way there is no longer anything to feel bad about. But even after the desire or impulse has disappeared, and the bad feeling with it, the drive toward gratification remains. A bored person is therefore left with a hankering feeling that they want or are bothered by something, but, because their aim has been suppressed, they don’t know what it is.

I remember a feeling of immense dread one dark Sunday afternoon in childhood. I turned for help to my mother, who was reading on the couch.

‘I feel like there’s something wrong,’ I told her, ‘but I don’t know what it is.’

‘You should read,’ she said, lowering her book but not closing it. ‘Get out of your head.’

To my mother, my uneasiness was a symptom of boredom, something that could be dealt with by an activity. But what she ended up teaching me was to reinforce the sort of repression that boredom usually indicates. To respond to my disquiet with distraction.

Childhood is the peak time for boredom because there are so many feelings a child is told not to have. ‘Life, friends, is boring,’ John Berryman writes in his famous poem on the topic, ‘Dream Song 14’, but, ‘We must not say so’. The speaker recollects his mother telling him ‘(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources”.’ Parents often respond to their children’s laments along the same lines: ‘You’re not bored – you’re boring.’ The parent that can’t help their child develop Inner Resources will likely defend against the frustration and powerlessness called up in them with boredom of their own (you’re boring). Perhaps part of what is so irritating to parents about their children’s boredom is the amorphous need it expresses – they want help finding something, but they don’t know what it is.

Boredom expresses the state of tension between a fear, desire or impulse that has been repressed and the leftover yearning that remains free-floating in consciousness, looking to attach to something. It is always easier to project that search into the external world than to look internally. But the external search can only fail. ‘The person who is bored,’ the psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel writes, ‘can be therefore compared to one who has forgotten a name and inquires about it from others.’

Nuar Alsadir

Nuar Alsadir is a poet, essayist and psychoanalyst. She recently published the non-fiction book Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation. She is also the author of the poetry books Fourth Person Singular and More Shadow Than Bird. She lives in New York.

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