Question: I find it strange that though I have many things to do, I still feel bored. It’s worse when I have little or nothing to do. The current COVID situation has accentuated the sense of boredom. What is the cause of such a condition and how do I get out of it?
Look up the thesaurus and we find words like apathy, ennui, tedium, monotony and lethargy — all aspects of boredom. The local term for it is sian which may best describe the feeling of not wanting to do anything, not knowing what to do, and not knowing why you are doing what you are doing.
The root cause of boredom lies in the loss of purpose and direction. Imagine visiting a construction site where a hundred workers are at work, each focused and busy at his assigned task. It’s unlikely we will find anyone bored. That’s because each is occupied and working at a goal against a deadline. A sense of purpose spurs them on.
Then imagine the same workers on their rest day. No work, but the sense of purpose remains, perhaps in a different form: making money to send home to family with the hope for a better life and future. If so, it’s unlikely that boredom will set in. Purpose dispels boredom just as the lack of purpose foments boredom.
Inactivity does not necessarily cause boredom, neither does activity in itself cure it. The point is not activity but the purpose behind activity. Once the “what” we do loses the “why” we do it, boredom is likely to follow. Hence, we can be busy with an endless round of activities and still end up bored — when the reason for such “hectivity” (hectic activity) is lost.
Worse still, when we are forced into inactivity, say, by illness or retrenchment (or the COVID-19 disruption), we succumb to boredom. We have misplaced our purpose and equated it with activity. A regular church-goer was faithfully teaching a Bible class for many years. He enjoyed it greatly and so was not too pleased when his pastor told him to take a break so that others could teach the class. After he stopped teaching, he found that going to church was no longer meaningful, and soon stopped going. The purpose of church-going is lost with the activity of teaching a class.
The way out of boredom requires a recovery of purpose. Why do we do what we do? From examples in Scriptures, we may draw out a few principles. Firstly, activity does not dispel or prevent boredom. Ecclesiastes tells of someone busy with projects and preoccupied with pleasures, who at the end of it all exclaims, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind....” (Ecclesiastes 2:11, NIV). Boredom takes over when meaning walks out.
Secondly, enforced inactivity need not spell boredom. Heroes of faith in the Bible were often assigned to periods of oblivion: Moses in the Midian wilderness, Elijah at the brook Cherith, Paul in prison. God has His purpose for such downtime, and may impose on us a season of relative inactivity. Only at such times do we look within ourselves and above to God, to discover or recover why we do what we do. We stop doing and turn our attention to being. Are we who we should be? We also stop working for God and let God work in us. As we discern the divine purpose for such times, we leave no room for boredom.
But inactivity has its dangers, as seen in King David when he no longer went out to battle but stayed home in his palace. Loitering around, he fell into the sin of adultery, compounded by the crime of murder (2 Samuel 11.1-27). So Matthew Henry warns, “Standing waters gather filth. The bed of sloth often proves the bed of lust.”
Not only does the lack of purpose lead to boredom, the preoccupation with self guarantees it. There is only so much we can do to entertain ourselves, to feed our ego with achievement and our senses with pleasure. A sure way out of boredom is to live as Jesus taught us, “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). We will then discover the life in which there is “never a dull moment".
Finally, not only does the lack of purpose lead to boredom, the preoccupation with self guarantees it. There is only so much we can do to entertain ourselves, to feed our ego with achievement and our senses with pleasure. A sure way out of boredom is to live as Jesus taught us, “not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). We will then discover the life in which there is “never a dull moment”.
Recently retired from active pastoral ministry, Rev Dr David Wong is enjoying a new season of life as a septuagenarian. He continues his ministry of mentoring, teaching and writing. His latest book is “Silence: A Necessary Pause in Noise” (Graceworks, 2020).