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David Bouchier: Bored In The USA

PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

For some of us at least the long-awaited leisure society seems to have arrived at last. But time moves slowly when we have nothing to do, and the threat of boredom is always just around the corner. The highlights of our week may be a visit from the UPS van, a Skype call, or a plumbing emergency when there are no plumbers. Small animal events outside the window – a herd of deer, a hawk, or an acrobatic squirrel – have become incredibly interesting. There’s nothing new to talk about except the one subject we want to avoid. We are tired of our own books and DVDs, television is nothing but violence and perpetual Antiques Road Shows, while the streaming services are apparently designed for creatures from another planet. Life has become nothing but reruns and repetitions.

Our problem is that we have lost the gift of idleness, and it may be time to claim it back. People have been wondering how to deal with idleness for a long time, probably since the beginning of time. A wet Sunday afternoon in the Paleolithic era before the invention of books must have been incredibly boring. My favorite character in literature, Oblomov, dealt with it by refusing to leave his bed. The great polymath Dr. Samuel Johnson published over a hundred essays under the general title of “The Idler” on topics of no importance whatsoever such as marriage announcements, shopping for bargains, and how to succeed in doing nothing. A new version of The Idler magazine was founded 1993 dedicated to the art of living pointlessly. I found an old copy around the house (I can’t imagine why) which has inspiring articles on paper airplanes, smoking in the bath, and being an incompetent bird watcher. These experts seem to tell us that the secret of idle time is to fill it up with sleep or futile amusements. This is how children get through childhood, before the days of their lives are claimed by jobs, families, and overdue bills.

In 1932 the British philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell published a provocative essay called “In Praise of Idleness.” His main argument was that idleness tends to promote peace, whereas restless, anxious, competitive activity tends to promote war. This makes a lot of sense. Wars, after all, are hard work. A truly idle nation would be a peaceful nation.

Russell conceded that, of course, some work was necessary and useful for society, so that everybody (and he meant everybody, not just the poor) should work about four hours a day. A huge leisure class would be created and everyone would be free, in Russell’s phrase, to follow his or her curiosity. He didn’t approve of futile amusements. He proposed we should all pursue and develop our intellectual, artistic and creative interests, whatever they are. The result would be a much happier and more stimulating society, economically poorer but culturally much richer. He even argued that, without the exhaustion caused by too much work, we could abandon our passive and mindless entertainments. In short, we would all become smarter.

Following Bertrand Russell’s advice, I could use my empty time to learn a difficult language, or try harder to understand quantum mechanics, or take up the violin – a worthwhile and absorbing project that will keep me busy and mentally challenged for months, if not years. On the other hand, somewhere around the house, I know, there is a big jigsaw puzzle.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.