“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.