A rarely stated but widely assumed myth of our “information age” is that access to information is the same thing as knowledge or, even worse, wisdom. Another is that time not spent accessing information is wasted, perhaps even immorally so.
This explains, at least in part, the extent to which people go in order to avoid boredom today. Even brief 30-second intervals at a red light have us grasping for our phones. Most of us are uncomfortable with having “nothing to do,” even for a moment. However, the endless pursuit of feeling “productive,” or at least “informed” is not satisfying. In a new book called Why Boredom Matters, Professor Kevin Hood Gary proposes a solution to this problem, which he summarizes in the subtitle: “Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life.”
Today, “leisure” carries connotations of wealth and laziness, which makes it difficult for Christians to defend. However, since the early modern era, “leisure” has referred to the pursuit of curiosity for curiosity’s sake. German philosopher Josef Pieper called leisure the “basis of culture,” defining it as “everything that lies beyond the utilitarian world.” In other words, to engage in leisure is to have the energy and the will to learn about the world, even when that learning isn’t necessary for survival or wealth.
Leisure, when understood in this sense, pushes us further into what it means to be human. No other creature engages in leisure like humans do. Animals build dams and burrows to stay warm and survive. Humans need shelter, too, but we decorate them. Not to mention, we also build cathedrals, theme parks, museums, and restaurants. We write sonnets, compose operas, and make eight-course meals. This is the behavior of creatures made in the image of God, a Creator who loves beauty for beauty’s sake.
Strictly utilitarian societies can be productive and efficient but are, in the end, unsustainable. The Communist experiment of the Soviet Union is an example of what happens when a society is built upon a wrong understanding of the human person. When creativity and imagination are suppressed and individuality rejected, the result is widespread dehumanization. (I’m not just talking about the architecture, although there’s a reason it’s called “brutalist”).
Still, throughout human history and even under brutal regimes, humans have always found the will and the means to engage in leisure. One of my favorite paintings, by Russian artist Nikolai Yaroshenko, is called Life Is Everywhere. Three men, a woman, and a baby are crammed into a prison car but, through the bars of their window, they watch, amused, the fevered activity of a group of birds on the ground outside. The child is smiling.
Even in war-torn countries and in the poorest slums, there are people making beautiful things, inventing games and stories, and imagining a world different than what they know. This is because leisure is an insuppressible part of being human, made in God’s image.
In most of the Western world, people have all the means and opportunity to pursue classical leisure but choose distraction instead. Lacking in motivation to go deeper, Kevin Hood Gary suggests the only solution is education.
He doesn’t mean institutional higher education as it is currently, unfortunately built around a utilitarian approach. Highly specified academic programs teach students what they need to pass a test, obtain a license, or make money. A truly meaningful education instead capitalizes on the God-given capacity for leisure incorporating a broad survey of subjects–including those that seem to have nothing to do with “getting a job.”
Often, those subjects assumed to be irrelevant to a job are the most consequential. Do we want geneticists capable of splicing genes and rewriting DNA who have never taken an ethics class? Do we want elementary teachers versed in all social-emotional learning theories of second graders, but who do not know even the basics of the history of Western civilization?
Education should be an antidote to boredom because it should teach us how to wrestle with the questions boredom brings up, such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What is life for? Am I living well? What should I love?
Philosophers call these the “ultimate” questions. Christians know that the source of these questions is God Himself, and that bearing God’s image makes life inherently meaningful. To learn about God’s world, through history, art, philosophy, mathematics, science, and literature, is to learn about Him. Thus, it is always beneficial, even if it accomplishes nothing more than giving us a wider glimpse of His glorious creativity.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Maria Baer. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
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