Interviewer: In your recent paper ‘Boredom and Consciousness’ you suggest that boredom may be as much a solution to the problem of meaninglessness as a cause or symptom. By inhabiting my boredom, I am forced to ask what I really want. Do you think that boredom is a potentially useful life tool for dealing with the issue of meaninglessness?
Patrick: When we think of boredom, we tend to think of low-level, situational boredom, such as one may experience when waiting for a train that is delayed or watching a boring movie. Yet I am interested in what a number of thinkers, most notably Heidegger, identify as a profounder, more existential experience of boredom, one in which time seems to stand still, meaning is stripped from the world and no activities or distractions can pull you out of it. When put like this, it sounds far more akin to what we call depression nowadays. However, what may differentiate boredom from depression is that in depression, there is often a sense of despair – a feeling that nothing will ever change, that it will always be like this. In boredom, one senses, there is a kind of anticipation – that even if we have to wait a long time and have no assurances that anything will emerge, we have some hope or faith and so do not sink into despair. My belief is, and this seems to be supported by a diverse range of sources, that if we are prepared to sit with non-meaning and the profound discomfort that this causes, rather than cover it up with distractions and superficial substitutes for meaning, then something more profound will emerge. I don’t have a clue what this may be – perhaps a deeper emotional connectedness with the world? We often find ourselves in a tension between freedom, openness and awareness, and the opposing forces of confusion, closure and restriction. People write about the groundlessness of existence or the anarchic gaps that exist in between our comforting convictions and certainties. To say that boredom or other afflictive moods may offer us a chance to explore this groundlessness sounds like something more closely connected with religion or spirituality than philosophy, but I don’t see why this should be the case. The first philosophical injunction is, after all, to ‘know thyself’. If we flee our boredom, we have clearly failed to fulfil this goal. To sit with boredom may be a fertile tool for examining the usefulness of one’s truths and deepest beliefs about oneself and the world. Of course, if moods like boredom offer insights into the absolute contingency and ultimately mysterious nature of all things, then maybe we will be left frustrated in our search for some kind of ‘deep’ meaning structure. But, unsatisfying and unsettling as this may be, it seems preferable from a philosophical perspective than submitting to something more immediate and gratifying. Not to foreclose prematurely on the question of meaning seems like a deeply philosophical (and courageous) position.