25 October 2009


I blame the Garden of Eden and the experience I had with it when I was six.  At school, everyday at noon, we would have to open our religion books and we would take turns reading out a sentence and then the teacher would explain it to us … interminably.  The first chapter of this book was all about Adam and Eve and we seemed to spend months going over and over this story.  (I was six – it could have been a week or two.)  I was eager to get on to later chapters where there were paintings of the parting of the Red Sea and of David fighting Goliath but, instead of that, day after day we kept reading about this ‘beautiful garden’.  These two words in particular stood out for me as signifiers of boredom and this, in turn, has been a factor (one of many) in determining how I am in the world, how I linguistically construct reality.  I still experience a recoil from these words.  My eyes glaze over when someone starts talking about gardening and I look upon gardens as places where essentially nothing worthwhile ever happens.  And I immediately presume that anyone who talks about beauty is not to be trusted.

It is probably not a coincidence that my boredom emerged in connection with the Garden of Eden; I believe that all boredom has a grain of the infinite within it.  Our unconscious horror is ‘this might go on forever’.  When an infant has a bad feeling, perhaps this is what it feels like.  Coming into language brings the relief of finding out that nothing lasts forever and the shock that everything must die.  When I was a child I was quite frightened at the prospect of living forever; I figured that, no matter how nice heaven would be, I was bound to get bored eventually.  And then there would be no relief from that eternal boredom.  At six years old perhaps I was already anxious to get out of that Garden and into the finite troubles of human existence. (Although, just now I had the thought that if I could only take up smoking again, perhaps I could stick out eternity – those cigarettes certainly tided me through an ocean of boring conversation in my twenties.)  As for the possibility of spending eternity in hell … well, I think James Joyce has already written the last word on that in ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’.

It is a dangerous crime to bore a child.  The younger the child the less words s/he has to put on this feeling and the more likely s/he is to feel it as a chaotic, bodily frustration.  Is it possible that there is a connection between the word, ‘boredom’, and that seemingly unrelated word, ‘panic’?  I certainly experience the latter at the threat of the former.  The classic picture of the bored person is of someone lying listlessly (and perhaps depressed) on a sofa, totally uninterested in the various stimuli the world has to offer – we are not inclined to associate the word with the anxious, frazzled (cigarette smoking) victim who cannot find anything in the world to ground them.  It has been my experience of a number of clients, presenting with such symptoms, that they have been railroaded into courses, careers and marriages that fail to stimulate them in a variety of ways.  Instead of a deficit these people have a surplus but a surplus which has not been tapped in to and is therefore working ‘destructively’ within the psyche instead of yielding up its dividends.  Buried talents have a volcanic quality.

I sometimes think that society can only tolerate a modicum of creativity without bursting at the seams.  There is a constant tension between the spontaneous fulfillment of the individual and the need of the community to preserve the status quo, or, at the limit, to allow for just enough change to create just a slightly better version of the current status quo.  We see this at play in classrooms everyday, where a few children are allowed to be creative but the majority is turned into drones who will go out and dutifully become the lawyers, truck-drivers, doctors and factory workers who perpetuate the fantasy that our current model of community is the best of all possible worlds.

We often hear it said of people with ADHD that they have an inability to tolerate boredom.  What does this say about the rest of us?  Does it mean that we have become so beaten down and submissive that we put up with the same tired old messages from our teachers, trainers, lecturers and politicians?  Is it really a sign of mental health if I can sit still and absorb tons of irrelevant bullshit?

This is not an attack on the teaching profession – if anything it is a defense of it.  I teach myself (that is a nicely ambiguous statement).  Right back to Socrates, the best teachers were those who questioned rather than answered and who welcomed a questioning attitude in their students.  Even in the ‘hard’ sciences this is true because, increasingly, we are devolving the function of ‘memory’ to computers and therefore we can concentrate on how information links and flows rather than swallowing and storing it. 

If we were truly to take account of these facts we would have to radically re-think our whole education system.  This in turn might impact on childcare which might impact on ‘productivity’ and ‘competitiveness’ in the economy – and no politician wants to go down those paths.  In the meantime, and in spite of the noble efforts of dedicated, frontline teachers we risk boring our children and thereby creating in-built, unconscious resentments in how they construct reality with language.  This is how the discourse of education can help create the symptom.

Hopefully this article leaves you with questions rather than answers …