If it is at all possible to measure the real value that inheres within life, then one must remove all contingencies and qualifications. This would require the possibility of an experience of naked existence as such.
To my knowledge, there is only one condition in which such an experience is possible, this is boredom. In boredom, one becomes lost in the present; separated from that which is meaningful to the individual in terms of his being possible. In the most extreme cases of boredom, one even loses one’s relation to his own self, and becomes free-floating “presence.” Boredom is epitomized by a break-down in intelligibility and meaning. Instead,the ubiquitous and inarticulable background practices that give us any understanding of what it means for anything to be anything at all come to the fore. Their vanity exposed, and having now become within the grasp of the understanding, are no longer to provide the foundation for the individual’s understanding of being. Thus, in consequence of the coming-to-the-fore of that by which anything is made meaningful at all, the self’s relation to everything that is, was, or could be, whether entities or the world generally, fades away into the background and one is left with existing as mere presence.
The onset of the most dreadful boredom thus amounts to our coming-to-terms with the nothingness of existence. When we are no longer able to rely on that which we previously relied upon to provide us with our most fundamental and pre-ontological understanding of being renders us hopelessly lost and alienated from all meaning in the world. In extreme boredom, what was previously concealed within the backdrop of our pre-ontological understanding of being is unconcealed, and thus manifests in a “clearing” by which we are forced to stare the abyss of existence in the face.
Only at this stage can we begin to develop an understanding of the worthiness (or lack thereof) in existence as such. Boredom thus takes on the task of stripping away the cultural practices upon which we take for granted as a necessary structure for our being-in-the-world. Accordingly, when our pre-ontological understanding of what it means “to be” is cleared away and naked existence presents itself as it is in its own, as is the case in acute boredom, it becomes possible to take notice of being without the imposition of the existential structure by which we are “given” on account of our thrownness in the world. Absent the necessary features of a “world,” this “breakdown” accordingly represents leaves us in a complete state of un-relation; where the individual has now lost his ability to relate to anything in a meaningful way.
The nothingness revealed by boredom makes all the more sense when we step back and consider the distressing nature of ennui generally. Often, human being is willing to go to great and exceptional lengths to escape boredom, including risking life and limb. Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once said that the remedy for boredom is “fear,” and indeed this seems correct, insofar as the remedy need be of greater quality and strength than the disorder. But the fact that some people are driven to take incredible risks for no other reason than to pre-occupy themselves is a telling illustration. While by no means dispositive, it goes a long way in confirming our suspicion’s about existence itself as revealed through the paradoxical paroxysm of boredom.
This is all possible in the first place on account of boredom being a particular, if not somewhat “special” and revealing type of mood. Moods represent our “affectedness” to being, and thus in reflecting upon our moods, allow us to better comprehend the way in which we are receptive to being. If we’re willing to listen, then certain moods, such as boredom, despair, anxiety, etc., are capable of disclosing primordial truths with respect to being. In boredom, as in other existential moods, we no longer see ourselves in our technological understanding of being, where everything exists as function to be utilized by us towards some end. Only in our receptivity to this disclosing feature of our moods are we able to draw upon that which is revealed in order to truly “learn” something about human being generally.
Thus, in boredom, the vanity of existence becomes manifest and only when we’re prepared to listen to this message does it become clear that all is naught. That most of us are unwilling, unprepared, or incapable of extending the necessary receptiveness to the truth within boredom is exemplified in the way in which we commonly respond to boredom, and thus place ourselves back into the endless antagonism between boredom and suffering generally. It is our despair over boredom that engenders us to re-establish our relation to the world, and ignore boredom’s fundamental revelation that our existence is altogether pointless. Thus, in escaping boredom, one “falls back” into to the average everyday meaningfulness by which one becomes engaged in the futility of existence.
Yet in the end, boredom is an inescapable part of what it means to “be” the type of beings we are generally. Schopenhauer’s insight that all of existence consists in an eternal oscillation between boredom and suffering seems more prevalent in the present age than perhaps any previous epoch. With an attention span that appears to be measured in nano-seconds, we are perpetually bombarded with sensory stimulation to satisfy our deep craving for distraction. On the other hand, we continue to strive after and pursue our pointless goals and futile aspirations, and thus expose ourselves to the inherent agony encapsulated within. And so we are always at the mercy of boredom or misery. Only by virtue of our unwillingness or inability to take note of what’s revealed in boredom are we able to delude ourselves to continuing on any further.
All of human existence, when viewed from the whole, is the eternal repetition of a three-fold cycle that we may call “suffering.” Within this cycle, human beings are thrust between inter-related stages of misery that constitute our lamentable condition of being-in-the-world. This primordial suffering, in turn, finds equal expression through the existential structure of lived time.
This cycle of suffering in turn is grounded in our being in time. Accordingly, it rests upon a necessary relationship with the type of beings for whom we are -in which we experience the subjectivity of our being-there grounded in (existential) temporality.
It’s no coincidence that the cycle of suffering shares a similar structure with lived time. This is necessarily so because it is our primordial relationship with our being-ness as expressed through time itself that invites us to suffer in the first place. Accordingly, the threefold cycle of suffering parallels the structure by which we exist in time, namely:
– Striving (future): striving refers to the type of suffering grounded in the individual’s concern for itself stretched through time, into an indefinite and temporal future. Human beings do not see themselves as merely existing in the present; rather, their being matters to them, and they take up this concern for existence through their own possibilities (projected into the future).
Thus, for each and every individual, it is his own future being that becomes primary. He is constantly re-affirming himself through his future possibilities; accordingly, his anticipation of the future determines his present course of action and disposition towards himself as he conceives himself, his past awareness of himself, and the world in which he always already finds himself.
It is the anticipation of future possibilities coming into actuality in which this level of suffering takes shape. Insofar as he anticipates a particular outcome or possibility, the individual must necessarily acknowledge a deficiency in his current being-in-the-world. If I set out to become a distinguished professor, it necessarily follows that I must acknowledge myself now as not a distinguished professor. Insofar as I make this my project, it becomes my meaningful commitment for my being. But, insofar as I remain unsatisfied in the completion of my project, I am less than the expectation that I set for myself.
The suffering of striving is increased by virtue of the fact that I never am my projects. One does not attain the rank of “distinguished professor” and then simply stop as if the mere recognition of status were simply enough; rather, one must continuously do what a distinguished professor does. If I do not write, research, have any students, or partake in the activities for which it means to be a distinguished professor — then I am not a distinguished professor.
Thus, the projects and goals for which we strive for are never truly “complete,” and thus we never attain the satisfaction of what we think it means “to be” that which we sought ought to become. Instead, we are suspended in perpetual becoming — never centered or grounded in our being but rather undergoing the arduous process of re-affirming our individual commitment to our defining projects. In short, I will never “be” a distinguished professor; rather, I will always forever find myself “becoming” a distinguished professor, despite the contrary conclusion which may be drawn from our ordinary usage of the verb “be.”
Likewise, striving always puts us at a grave risk for frustration, failure, and disappointment. In this sense, striving always puts the individual at the risk of not achieving that which he sought ought to become, giving rise then to feelings of disappointment, disenchantment, or other negative feelings towards one’s self and the world. With sufficient regularity, such disappointment or frustration can lead to a rejection of striving and total detachment from the possibilities that give rise to one’s meaningful relation to himself.
– Anguish (past): Anguish is the level of suffering centered in the past. It is the expression of disharmony or imbalance within the self and its relation to the world and/or its own self. However, it should be noted that anguish need not necessarily manifest itself as a form of suffering about or over the past, though it certainly is possible (as in the feeling of regret).
Rather, in anguish, there is a breakdown in the self’s reflective relation to its past as the defining source of the content of its own self and its correlative worth to itself. Insofar as I can know myself, it is to the extent that I am capable of seeing myself as having a definite past, in which I interpret as a whole that which constitutes and gives intelligible meaning to my concrete and individual existence. Thus, the “I” (insofar as this may be said to exist) is not merely the material constituent parts that make up my body as it “exists” in space and time; nor is it the “mental stuff” for which my personality, my experience, my interiority are merely objective manifestations of; rather, the “I” is the expression of my relation to my own self as it relates to itself through existential or lived time.
When I reflect on my individual past, I recall specific memories. For me, these are never general nor abstract, but always concrete; this is so because (to me) they did not happen to an amorphous “someone,” but rather the concrete me — a subjectively existing individual whose being matters for him. In this way, I am able to derive from my own relation to my past in lived-time that it was the same “I” that occupies my memories as the “I” that is thinking about those memories now.
This complex series of relations in which the very “mine-ness” of my own self is made possible is always vulnerable to categorical break-downs. It is in these “breakdowns” in the self’s relationship to itself that the suffering of anguish takes form. For instance, I may lose all connection to myself as a self, or perhaps never become aware of myself as a self (and thus not be a self); I may recognize myself as a self but reject becoming myself. In its concrete forms, anguish gives rise to moods focusing on hyper-reflection inwards and onto the self, such as despair, certain forms of depression, melancholy, and other acute or chronic expressions of discordant relations of the self.
– Boredom (present): Boredom, as the third form of suffering, is unique in that it generally is understood not on account of any particular content or attributes which distinguish it from the other levels of suffering, but rather, its form. Generally speaking, boredom is the withdrawal of the related meaningfulness of being-in-the-world.
Boredom itself can be sub-divided into three distinctive stages, all of which represent, to varying degrees of intensity, the aforementioned withdrawal of individual meaning — either meaning in the world, meaning within the self, or total collapse of all meaning into nothginess. For more on the specific levels of boredom, click here.
From his lamentable birth to his lonely death, all individual human beings are thrown about within this cycle, tossed between each stage with neither purpose nor reason. The relationship between time and the cycle of suffering is expressed trough the type of beings we are — for we are the type of beings who care about our being-in-the-world.
Accordingly we are always already immersed within this cycle due to the ontological structure of being itself. Thus, what Heidegger called the “Care” structure, may properly be understood as the “root” or “grounding” of existential suffering.
Furthermore, there is no “progression” or hierarchy of suffering; this is so because it is cyclical, not linear. One does not undergo any growth or transfiguration between striving and anguish; anguish and boredom; or boredom and striving. Each stage is itself both self-sufficient but at the same time co-related to the next, and human existence as such is destined to exist through each stage, forever repeating itself.
This three-fold cycle expresses itself through our disposedness to the world, or rather, our “moods.” Our moods disclose to us (and, when articulated, to others) how it’s going in the world. Our moods reflect our insights into our own being-in-the-world, and thus are never entirely interior or affective mental states.
Certain moods express more clearly which stage of suffering any given individual may be experiencing. For instance, anxiety or dread is an expression of striving (future); whereas despair and sadness are expressions of anguish (past). Moreover, the vast complex of moods can express a simultaneous overlapping of different levels of suffering. For example, general melancholy may be found primarily in anguish, but certain forms may express all three stages of suffering.
“Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself… If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward of boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey.” ~ A. Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence.
Over the course of their lifetime, most human beings will spend a considerable amount of their time, energy, and resources engaged in a vain effort to stay the onset of boredom. Nowhere is this more true than here in the industrialized West, where modern technological conveniences and the vast processes of social leveling have left us with an overabundance of idle time. As a result, we rarely have to do anything for ourselves, and thus most of us are inadequately suited for even imagining what a worthwhile life would be… as such, boredom becomes seemingly ubiquitous.
What’s unique about boredom is the manner in which it reveals the “vanity” or emptiness of “naked existence” as such. That’s because most of the time we’re actively engaged in something and thus become distracted from our own inconsequential existence. When we’re simply going through the motions of being in the world, the hopeless vanity of it all is hidden from view. We become wholly preoccupied and engrossed with whatever it is we’re doing, or whomever is stealing our attention for the moment: whether it’s going to class, finding a career, caring for our children, pursuing sexual satisfaction, or any myriad other pursuits we may have in mind.
At some stage or another, we all become bored. The most widely experienced type of boredom is that of the everyday variety. This type of boredom is a feeling of growing weariness towards whatever it is that we’re focused on. Even if this or that situation or entity initially engaged or interested us, it now no longer does so. I become bored with it; whereas the it may be comprised of any particular entity. The phenomena of everyday boredom is that of being left in a kind of limbo — where time itself seems suspended and we actively seek out new stimulation to relieve us from our becoming bored.
The second stage of boredom is more inward and thus centered on the Self’s relation to itself. Thus, the Self is not becoming bored with any particular entity, which may or may not retain its original interest to the Self; but rather, the Self is bored with itself. This is the experience of feeling as though one is weary of being oneself. It’s not my situation, or this or that particular entity that fails to capture my attention or spark my interest — but my Self. While at the same time this type of boredom is more depressing and can give rise to deep feelings of despair over one’s Self, it is also more revealing. It is the Self’s disclosure (to itself) that it is bored with being-in-the-world.
The third variety of boredom is the deepest, and thus may be called “profound boredom.” This type of boredom represents a total breakdown of the Self’s being-in-the-world. Heidegger summarized this level of boredom as simply, “one is bored.” In this level of boredom, the Self becomes an “undifferentiated no one,” and all entities and relations are stripped of meaning. I become no-one; my self a non-self. My relation to the world is transformed into a negative relation relating to the utter meaningless totality of being-in-the-world. It is a relation to un-relatiedness in the world — and so my stance on my self and my world is one of pervasive indifference.
In profound boredom, the Self suffers a complete and total breakdown in its relation to the world: all meaning and intelligibility fall by the wayside, and all choice and decision rendered null. The world and the entities therein are re-cast in dreary shades of grey; and existence itself is drowned in an unyielding and monotonous void.
As its possibilities withdraw, the Self becomes resigned to the meaningless indifference in which it finds itself. It is at this stage that the Self is afflicted with the meaninglessness of his existence. The projects and commitments which gave the Self its identity (its sense of self by way of relating to itself) are left unrelatable and devoid of meaning. This creates a crisis of the Self in the utter and total annihilation of its intelligible and meaningful relation to the world.
Profound boredom is also marked by its ability to give rise to suicidal ideation. Total annihilation becomes the only plausible solution to escape the miserable suspension of the Self in the world. Robbed of all intelligibility and grounding, but only to the extent that the Self previously upheld such illusions to begin with, boredom then transforms into abysmal despair or melancholy. The failure of the Self to find any grounding — and the hopelessness of ever attaining meaningful relations to the world and one’s place in it — quickly reveal the preference of non-existence over existence. Whereas Heidegger relates in What is Metaphysics that boredom reveals the “whole,” but not the nothingness (this is the exclusive province of angst) of Dasein, boredom, at least in its most extreme and profound manifestation, does have a way of breaking down “worlds” in a way that, in some respects, is similar to the role “death” plays in angst — revealing Dasein’s total vulnerability to world collapse.
The most meaningful difference, however, may be the way in which death discloses Dasein’s own freedom to choose to accept an authentic relationship with its own death and thus live a life of dying. Profound boredom does not disclose freedom, it breaks down the Self’s ability to relate at all. Whereas Heidegger wants to ascribe an activist response to the indifference of boredom (see What is Metaphysics, Basic Concepts), this seems highly questionable in light of the ‘total’ despair of sweeping indifference which overcomes in the third and highest stage of boredom.