Boredom, pain, and a Band Aid
For over a century we have imagined, worked for, and created the means by which we could be more efficient in our work and thus have more leisure time. A shorter work week, longer weekends, more vacations – we all love them. The trade off, however, is too much time on our hands. At the risk of overstating this American (and increasingly, global) problem, we have invented more and more ways to fill our time, but we are less and less satisfied with these activities and the meaning (or lack thereof) they bring. Too many in our society are simply too bored with their lives. The solution, or better said, the result is obsession – with eating, with sex, with sports, and with entertainment. Many of us are so bored that the American economy is fueled by “massive boredom industries designed to help people find escape.” It seems we have to do more and more, multitask more and more, and get busier and busier so that we don’t have to stop and reflect on our pain and emptiness. And, the more we do, the more unsatisfied we are – it becomes a vicious cycle.
The growing boredom in American society is certainly not something brand new. Its increasing prevalence, however, is reflected by how much we spend to cure it. The chances are that an American family spends more on entertainment than on groceries, gasoline, or clothing once all expenses for movies, cable, music, and other forms of entertainment are factored in.[i] The size of the sports industry is over $200 billion, twice the size of the auto industry and seven times the size of the movie industry, which is immense in and of itself.[ii] According to one market research company, it is estimated that in 2004 Americans “spent $705.9 billion on entertainment, a figure equivalent to the entire gross national product of Canada” and Australia. That figure continues to grow every year, regardless of the economy, and reflects “consumers’ need for ‘self-actualization’.”[iii] Going to extremes
Certainly, these statistics may not be accurate – it all depends on who is measuring what and then how the results are interpreted and reported. They are still astounding. As Americans we have the affluence of both time and money to address our boredom through a thousand different activities. This is not in and of itself wrong. The people of Israel had regular times of rest, refreshment, and celebration. Jesus and his disciples “partied” at weddings and celebrated with others often. There is nothing wrong with refreshing oneself through literature, music, a good movie, and sporting events. It does become a problem when we become obsessed to the point of idolizing sports and entertainment celebrities, when we overspend on entertainment, and when we engage in these activities not as a temporary distraction but as a way to avoid the real issues of spiritual, emotional, and relational barrenness. Rather than face the reality of the pain brought on by emptiness, we put an entertainment Band Aid on it.
A time comes, however, when the Band Aid no longer works, and more extreme measures are taken: spend more money, spend more time, take more risks, and seek more thrills. Witness the phenomenal growth and interest in extreme sports and fighting events. Why are all these so popular? They are countercultural, they are youth oriented, some are really a lot of fun, and they are marketed quite well. I would argue, however, that there is a direct connection to our affluence of time and money. We become desensitized to the Band Aid, still feel the emptiness, and do anything to feel truly alive, even if it involves extremely risky behaviors.
An example of the extremes to which we may go is seen in the movie Fight Club, a grim but culturally important movie that addresses both the emptiness (mostly generational in the movie) and the actions taken to fill it. In the movie, young men in their twenties join a secret fight club in which the voluntary pummeling they give each other is the only way they can feel alive. “‘I bleed, therefore I am’ serves as [their] rallying cry.”[iv]
Again, rest, relaxation, and even entertainment are good things. Excess, abuse, and extremes of these, however, mask boredom, emptiness, and meaninglessness. The answer is not to avoid sports, entertainment, and leisure activities. Rather, the opportunity is to introduce the gospel of Jesus Christ as the solution to boredom, emptiness, and meaningless. Therefore:
- We can communicate and demonstrate that knowing Jesus and being a member of His kingdom can be the thrill of a lifetime, fill our souls with hope, and give our lives all the meaning we can handle.
- We do not, however, present this in the form of a magical formula: “Believe in Jesus and all your struggles will go away.” No, even believers will struggle with some boredom, the occasional empty feeling, and times of meaninglessness. Sometimes the Christian life can be one of simply perseverance. Dry times will come. Difficult times will come. Walking with Jesus, we need to explain, is a journey and it takes us through those times. Our hope is that He is with us in and through them.
- We will want, therefore, to reject any trend toward formula Christianity and over-promising the Christian life as if we were in competition with extreme sports and adrenaline junkies. I am not saying that we need to eliminate all practical Christian teaching, or do away with “Christian” (as if they could be saved) sports activities, outdoors events, and entertainment. I am not saying the Christian life cannot be and should not be fun. I am saying that we want to be careful not to reduce the gospel and the Christian life to just these, for the follower of Christ is primarily called to die to self, sacrifice, and even suffer. The victorious Christian life is not always seen in prosperity, success, and happiness. It is more often seen, Biblically and historically, in a life of sacrificial giving, excruciating faith, and exhausting perseverance. Fun is good, but the storms will come also and we should not present an incomplete gospel that will leave the new believer unprepared.
We may still go to movies, play sports, read books, play video games, and so forth. They are fun! They will, however, be genuinely experienced as occasional times of needed rest and not a temporary and counterfeit salve for unaddressed spiritual issues.
[i] Damon Darlin, “How to Tame an Inflated Entertainment Budget,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/19/business/19money.html?pagewanted=all, (accessed 6/1/2012).
[ii] “Sports and Entertainment, http://nbaccorp.com/en/our-clients/industries/sports-and-entertainment, (accessed 6/1/2012).
[iii] Jackie Cohen, “America’s Culture of Entertainment,” http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americans-value-entertainment-studies-show, (Accessed 6/1/2012). To maintain some perspective, this figure also includes purchases of books and magazines.
[iv] Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic: 2003), 172. The movie’s “biting sarcasm and ferocious energy expose the spiritual bankruptcy of a consumer society bent on happiness. . .” Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, 2nd edition, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 211.