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Bored With Time?

Cathal Horan is distracted by the eternal search for meaning.

No matter what we do or where we live, boredom manages to seek us out. We may create elaborate schemes to attempt to prevent the onset of boredom, but these are never foolproof.

Take waiting as evidence of this. Waiting for the bus for example, we impatiently look at our watch more frequently than we would normally. We stand up, walk around, or begin to fidget with anything within reach. We will read anything in order to occupy our thoughts, even if this entails reading the bus schedule five or six times or intensely scrutinising an advertisement for the latest mobile phone. We behave this way because we are bored.

This is as far as we usually go in attempting to understand boredom. However, this is the same level of understanding as saying that the price of goods increases because of inflation. Yet we know that inflation is the consequence of a number of factors. The same is true of boredom: it is the consequence of a more fundamental phenomenon, our experience of time. But hidden somewhere within this experience is a key to finding meaning in our lives. To fully unravel this puzzle we will need to look at all three things –boredom, time and meaning. This will allow us to discover how we can deal with time and meaning, and how this relates to the society in which we live.

Train Times

To begin to unravel the puzzle we must first understand what happens when we are bored. German philosopher Martin Heidegger describes boredom using the example of waiting for a train in a provincial station. We begin to feel uneasy and will desperately search for any distraction. We constantly think of the things we could be occupying ourselves with. It seems like we are wasting time, standing in the train station, doing nothing. Heidegger believes that such boredom is evidence to ourselves of our existence through our direct experience of time. This is an almost physical experience. Without distractions such as radios, newspapers or other people, we are unarmed in such experience. Time pushes down on us, applying more and more pressure. We are uncomfortable with this as most of us are not capable of dealing with raw time. We suddenly become aware of many things, and most frighteningly of all, we become aware of ourselves. With nothing to distract us from time we see our own existence stretched out before us. Suddenly we begin to feel very insignificant. We feel ignored by the world as it passes us by, seemingly uninterested in providing us with any meaning.

Why does our experience of time and the awareness of our existence scare us so much? French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre believed that this was because of the vacuum or gap created by awareness. This is evident from the opposite situation, when we are busy at work or some other project. We talk of time ‘flying’, or we claim that we did not realise it was so late. Sartre believes that this is because in these situations we are not aware of our existence.

Sartre thinks we are playing at existing the same way an actor is playing a role. Since we are aware that we are trying to be a waiter, or an engineer, or a doctor, we never truly are those things – we are always playing at them. On the other hand an object is never aware of itself. A box is always a box. It is not playing at being a box, nor aware of its quality of ‘boxiness’. But this gap in being introduced by our awareness is increased when we experience time. At the train station, when we experience time directly, we feel this gap painfully as our boredom increases.

To illustrate this idea we can imagine ourselves in a boat floating in the middle of a lake. The boat has a leak, but it is not too serious as long as we make sure we empty the excess water out of the boat. As long as we do this we have meaning and purpose, and we are aware of nothing else. However, if we fix the leak, we are suddenly aware that we are floating in the middle of a lake far from shore. Our new concern is about reaching the shore, whereas previously we were not aware of any such problems. Our meaning was previously simple, since our time was occupied by ensuring that we removed the excess water from the boat.

This analogy shows us that without purpose or meaning we become bored due to our experience of time, which leads to a renewed search for meaning. We can think of meaning in two ways: in the simple sense of meaning as a temporary distraction, as at the train station; or in terms of a more fundamental meaning for our lives. Both are based on the same principles.

Before Time Began

The boat example raises an interesting question: should we fix the leak at all? Plato would say that we should only fix the leak if we are capable of dealing with the consequences of doing so – here, capable of dealing with time. In the Republic Plato talks about an ideal, simple society before he goes onto describe the society he lived in. It must be noted that Plato did not believe that the ideal society could be realised: he uses it as a means of showing the inadequacies of his own society. We could say his implication is that once we fix the leak we cannot return to the same situation by making another leak. We are forced to deal with the consequences of our actions.

What would the ideal society look like? Plato believed that it would be a simple, rural society, which served to provide only the most basic needs; food, clothing and shelter. People come together in this society because they are not completely self-sufficient and they possess different skills and talents. In this society some of us would catch food, others would build huts, and others would make clothing. We would spend our time trying to perfect our skill. This is the key to this society ’s success. Our skill is our meaning and gives us our ability to deal with time. Plato claims that there would be no free time to threaten the stability of this society, as each persons’ “job will not wait till he has leisure time to spare for it.” Even Heidegger would be happy, as there would be no boredom, and Sartre would be pleased, as the gap of awareness would be almost insignificant.

If we had ever realised such an ideal society in the past, why would we want to leave it? It is clear that we do not live in a simple rural society today, so what happened to the simple pastoral utopia? The important thing is that the gap of our awareness was almost insignificant. This tiny awareness of time led to our desires for what Plato calls ‘luxuries’; and the need for these luxuries formed the basis of complex civilized society.

The luxuries Plato talked about are somewhat different to what we would see as luxuries today. What Plato means is we would begin to desire more than the essential goods needed for survival. This could take the form of inventing a better tool for hunting, or a new way to build huts. This means we would be able to save up for winter, ensuring that we did not have to live from moment to moment.

While these advances would seem innocent and harmless, this process would result in the creation of free time. With free time, people would begin to create more luxuries, such as perfumes and confectionary, and new types of food and clothes. It would further lead to the creation of the fine arts, and the accumulation of highly valued materials such as gold or silver. In this way Plato believed we moved from our healthy, happy state to a more ‘civilised’ state – due to our desires for luxuries. The highest of all such desires is our desire for free time itself. But each advance that leads to more free time means we need more luxuries to prevent the onset of boredom and ensure that the gap of and in our awareness does not increase. This gives rise to the vicious cycle we find in our own modern-day society.

Modern Times

To understand this cycle, let’s investigate how we deal with time in modern society by looking at the way we deal with vision. If our eyesight shows signs of deterioration we are quickly fitted with prescription glasses to improve our vision. We are warned not to wear these glasses all the time. Unfortunately we do not heed this advice for very long. Once we begin to realise that we see more clearly with the glasses we begin to wear them for longer periods. It is not long before we wear them almost constantly. We fail to remember that these corrective lenses are crutches for our eyes. Gradually, we are weakening the ability of our eyes to see clearly. As a result we need stronger glasses to continue to see clearly. We begin to be trapped in a vicious cycle. With each day we are growing more dependent on our crutches. Eventually, we will be totally dependent on our corrective lenses, and completely incapable of seeing clearly without them. Our society is doing the same to us in relation to time, making us incapable of dealing with it.

Here the glasses are replaced with luxuries. The initial realisation of free time allowed us to sample luxuries. Not satisfied with these luxuries, we desire more extravagant luxuries, in the belief that they will satisfy our cravings. But as we satisfy our increasing demand for luxuries, we discover our cravings only increase. In this way we are trapped in a cycle where the only solution we can conceive of is to increase the strength of the very essence of the problem.

Let’s now apply this analogy to our everyday experience to understand how modern society makes us incapable of dealing with time. Heidegger claimed that we experience time directly when we encounter situations such as waiting for a train. This results in boredom, as we are unable to deal with such a direct experience of time passing. If we wait for a train everyday, or for some other reason we experience raw time more often, we can learn to be more comfortable with this experience. It is similar to training for a marathon: it would be very difficult to simply run a marathon if we did no training. However if we gradually increase the distance we run over a long period it is not such a daunting task. Time is the same. Our encounters with time result in boredom because we are not ‘fit enough’ to deal with it. Boredom is evidence of this lack of fitness. But if we deal with direct time increasingly over a prolonged period, we become more capable of dealing with the experience.

Unfortunately our society does not provide for such training. Everywhere we look technology provides us with more ways to avoid experiencing time. When we wait for a bus or a train we listen to radios, minidiscs or MP3 players. The technological advance that best allows us to avoid experiencing time is the mobile phone. There is now virtually nowhere we need to experience time. While walking to a bus station we can call someone on the phone. When we’re waiting for the bus we can text people.

The problem is that our society covets and values such developments. We feel uncomfortable with the experience of time as it presses down on us, so we believe that anything which relieves this pressure is a virtue. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. It may not feel good to train for a marathon, but we realise that we need to endure some level of difficulty to get fit. The view from the summit may be beautiful, but we need to expend energy to get there. Modern society does not encourage such an approach in dealing with time. But by not training for time we are failing to reap the benefits of a clearer experience of meaning. Plato believed that his society was also guilty of not encouraging people to realise the ‘good life’ –the life of meaning. In fact, he claimed “to escape harm and grow upon the right lines in our present society is something that can fairly be attributed to divine providence. ”

Time For Change

If we continue to approach time in this way we could be in danger of creating an entire society incapable of dealing with it. Like an addiction, we will need something to distract us in every facet of our lives to ensure that we do not experience boredom. So we will attempt to cover up the increasing gap created by our awareness, but this will become increasingly difficult as we realise more free time. Eventually, like a crack in a windscreen, the gap will become too large to ignore.

Plato believed that this outcome could be avoided if society was restructured. He says that “there will be no end to the troubles of states… or humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world.” So his solution was simple, if somewhat sweeping: allow philosophers to rule the world, and everything will be fine. This may seem too similar to the politician on your TV telling you they know how to solve all society ’s problems. But let’s look at the reasons Plato believed philosophers are so suited to ruling society, and try and see if we can implement this thinking in our everyday lives. In this way we would not need a complete overhaul of our societal structure, but only minor readjustments in our own lives which will improve our ability to deal with time.

Plato believed that philosophers are suited to ruling society because they’re the only people who embark on a search for (true) truth, concerned with discovering the unchanging reality which is the true object of knowledge. The philosopher is not interested in mere sense perception or bodily desires. But this is how the philosopher also deals with time. They do not feel time pressing on them, as they do not use their senses to deal with it. So by seeking and finding what is eternal and unchanging, the philosopher can eliminate the problem of time.

We can conceive of this unchanging element as our meaning. Our true meaning is that which persists through time, and not that which simply occupies time. ‘Removing the water from the boat’ is not our real meaning, but only something that occupies our time, an artificial means of dealing with time. Plato believed that the philosopher is the only person capable of seeing this, as they have the “greatness of mind and the breadth of vision to contemplate all time and all reality. ”

This may sound fine, but how do we apply it to everyday life? We can begin by understanding this philosophical search for truth as an alternative way of looking at the world. Normally, to contemplate beauty we need to see a beautiful person or a beautiful car, or whatever we consider beautiful. We cannot think of beauty as existing in itself, independent of concrete examples, because we rely on our senses to perceive such things. As a result, in the absence of such bodies we encounter boredom. What Plato is saying is that the philosopher is freed from this dependence and its results because they are searching for the unchanging reality of beauty. They realise their senses can only give them an indication of what beauty is. But what makes a beautiful car beautiful? To Plato there must be some ideal Form of beauty that I am comparing this beautiful car to. The philosopher knows that they cannot discover this ideal by using their senses to look at every type of beautiful thing. Thus, the philosopher does not need to be distracted by their senses to occupy time: they use time to find the unchanging element. When we find that which persists through time, we will have found our meaning. This is what Plato describes as the ‘good life’.

Still not convinced? Well you are not alone. This search for truth involves what is referred to as Plato ’s theory of Forms. This is the search for the perfect Forms of abstract concepts or physical entities. Plato believed that these ideal Forms could only be fully realised in another world, which we enter after we die. Unfortunately many people reject the entire theory as they feel it describes something lofty and mystical. However, we do not need to believe every aspect of the theory to use it to help us to deal with time. We can simply understand that we do not need to constantly rely on our senses to provide us with stimulation or means of distraction. We do not need an iPod or a mobile phone. We can train ourselves to use our minds to search for eternal truths to deal with the boredom we feel while waiting for the bus, using our minds to try and find something which persists through time so that we can be comfortable with our awareness of our existence.

This need not entail becoming a Tibetan monk meditating eight hours a day. Our inability to deal with time is the same as our inability to deal with heights if we suffer from vertigo. If you fear heights you will do almost anything to avoid experiencing your phobia. You will not go up tall building or climb ladders. If you work on this fear so you overcome your phobia, and become comfortable with heights, do you automatically throw yourself from the top of a tall building? Hopefully not. In the same way, when you become comfortable with time it does not mean that you need to indulge in a direct experience of time every moment of every day: it simply means you will not be anxious when you find yourself waiting for a train. You no longer fear the experience of time.

Once we are released from this fear of time we are released from the vicious cycle that forces us to create more free time we cannot deal with it. We will understand boredom as our inability to deal with time, and accept that we need to learn how to deal with it. We can choose to occupy ourselves, or we can try and deal with time by acknowledging the gap created by our awareness of our existence. This is a choice we can make every day. So the next time you ’re waiting for a train, don’t try and occupy your time by reading a newspaper or fiddling with your mobile phone. Simply understand that the boredom you feel is evidence of your inability to deal with time. Don ’t look for a distraction, and know that the longer you endure your boredom, the more capable you become in dealing with time. We can do this a little every day, while waiting in a queue or stuck in traffic. We can do it at home by just turning off the television and feeling the pressure of time. Slowly we will become more comfortable with time. This will allow us to be less dependent on external events, and more capable of realising a meaning in our lives that is not simply occupying time, but makes us capable of dealing with time. At the very least, waiting for a bus should be a less painstaking experience.

© Cathal Horan 2008

Cathal Horan is studying for an MPhil in Psychoanalytic Studies at the Philosophy Department of Trinity College, Dublin, while working as a software engineer.


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