I am bored, you are bored, all aboard…

The second most contagious thing in the world right now, after the new coronavirus, is the insight that ‘social distancing’, previously known as ‘staying at home’ and ‘stay the fxxx away from me, you creep’, may actually help to decelerate the spread of the virus by reducing the number of new cases and thus helping to prevent our health services from collapsing altogether.

We have the world at our fingertips, enabling us to communicate for (almost) free and in real time. We live in a world in which the convenience of food and goods delivery has begun to replace the hassle of actually going to a shop (not for me, though: I’m a dinosaur, thank you very much). The internet provides us with almost unlimited resources to receive and broadcast forms of entertainment and distraction, from the silly to the useful to the unbearably serious.

Yet, remarkably, we talk about ‘unparalleled’ disruption to our lives.

Of course, unparalleled perhaps for many of us.

I’m not so sure if those who had to endure the hardships of WWI or WWII would find any of our inconveniences, combined with our access to communication media, all that remarkable. In fact, I am pretty sure, they’ve had it much worse.

Or those who suffered years of the plague.

But whatever, it’s all about us, right? Individualism meets post-truth, and all that.

Anyway. Who cares about perspective when the heat is on. It. Is. All. About. Us.

For perfectly good reasons, the medical and economic impact of the virus on our societies is very much in the foreground of current debate. But already now there is an increasing awareness of the social implications that this virus has on our lives (I addressed some aspects of that in an opinion piece, published here (in German – but fear not, Google Translate is your friend)), and this seems very important to me: we cannot, and should not, be reduced to medically functioning organisms and economically viable and productive entities.

There is more to life.

One of the remarkable developments I see is the fact that, in spite of all the time that we now potentially have at our disposal, and in spite of all the technology in our hands, the unaccustomed lack of structure to our days results in a peculiar, potentially quite explosive mixture of complete and utter boredom, despair, and recalcitrance.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/eb/La_Touche_Lennui_1893.jpg
Gaston de la Touche, Boredom (1893)

The lack of structure, the lack of focus and meaning in our daily lives, as they are disrupted by the virus and government-imposed restrictions, is something that we ought to address.

In that context, looking for inspiration, I came across the following passage of Lucretius‘ poem De rerum natura (Lucr. 3.1046 ff., transl. W. H. D. Rouse – M. F. Smith):

You whose life is now all but dead though you live and see, you who waste the greater part of your time in sleep, who snore open-eyed and never cease to see dreams, who bear with you a mind plagued with vain terror, who often cannot discover what is amiss with you, when you are oppressed, poor drunken wretch, by a host of cares on all sides, while you wander drifting on the wayward tides of impulse!

Just as men evidently feel that there is a weight on their minds which wearies with its oppression, if so they could also recognize from what causes it comes, and what makes so great a mountain of misery to lie on their hearts, they would not so live their lives as now we generally see them do, each ignorant what he wants, each seeking always to change his place as if he could drop his burden.

The man who has been bored to death at home often goes forth from his great mansion, and then suddenly returns because he feels himself no better abroad. off he courses, driving his Gallic ponies to his country house in headlong haste, as if he were bringing urgent help to a house on fire. The moment he has reached the threshold of the house, he yawns, or falls into heavy sleep and seeks oblivion, or even makes haste to get back and see the city again.

Thus each man tries to flee from himself, but to that self, from which of course he can never escape, he clings against his will, and hates it, because he is a sick man that does not know the cause of his complaint; for could he see that well, at once each would throw his business aside and first study to learn the nature of things, since the matter in doubt is not his state for one hour, but for eternity, in what state mortals must expect all time to be passed which remains after death.

Lack of an ability to rest in ourselves, Lucretius suggests in these profound and witty lines, is what causes our unsteadiness and fuels our fidgety disquietude, combined with our fear of death, a fear of missing out in our lives before death.

He prescribes a thorough reading of philosophy to address this. That may, quite emphatically, not be everyone’s preferred course of action right now.

But I do wonder if there is not some opportunity in these challenging times as well: an opportunity to decelerate, an opportunity to question the purposes that have defined our busy lives, an opportunity to rediscover big and tiny joys, an opportunity to seek meaning in life beyond the daily grind.

Right now, the boredom and uneasiness, combined with a very real fear of death for ourselves and our loved ones, amplified by what we read in the news and – worse – on social media, can be toxic.

Thus each man tries to flee from himself, but to that self, from which of course he can never escape, he clings against his will, and hates it, because he is a sick man that does not know the cause of his complaint; for could he see that well, at once each would throw his business aside and first study to learn the nature of things, since the matter in doubt is not his state for one hour, but for eternity, in what state mortals must expect all time to be passed which remains after death.

So we need to end our impossible escape, our running away from ourselves. We need to learn how to detox.

And we need to support all those who help us to survive this extraordinary situation. Not just right now. But all the time. #StayAtHome #ReadMoreLucretius

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
This entry was posted in Education, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to I am bored, you are bored, all aboard…

  1. Dear Peter,
    thank you very much for your impressive classical contributions on different pages.
    As to the current situation, actually I do feel bored in the sense of “genervt”, I do not feel bored in a sense of “gelangweilt”.
    The local newspaper reminded their readers of Albert Camus’ “Die Pest” and Boccacios’ “Decameron”.
    Best wishes and confidence
    Bernd

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lieber Bernd, ganz herzlichen Dank für die Nachricht und die netten Worte – ja, das geht mir ganz ähnlich, und ich habe die Sorge, dass das alles in eine recht explosiven Stimmung mündet irgendwann, wenn man sich den Prozess nicht genau überlegt. Wirklich schwierig alles. Bleib gesund!

    Liked by 1 person

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