Sunday, September 20, 2009


Yesterday, having gone to Office Max to pick up some identity badges and a stamp for an upcoming conference my partner is planning, we stopped at a sandwich shop in the same strip mall to get some lunch. After we ordered and he had his sandwich, we sat down for him to eat and for me to wait for the grill to finish mine.
Across the aisle from us was a not atypical American family: two somewhat rotund thirty-somethings with what must have been their only child, a girl of three or four. As the parents ate their sandwiches and filled out a comment card, their daughter watched some cartoon involving moose and other animals on a portable DVD player that the parents had brought in with them.
Now, I am curmudgeonly in all sorts of ways, so this may sound like an old man grumbling about what we had to do without back when I was a child and had to trudge through the snow uphill both ways to school, etc. But, that's not really my point.
This little girl is being taught, as we all are in contemporary society, that we must be entertained at all moments, that we ought never to be bored, that we have a right not to be. The great and pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer defined human nature partly in terms of our capacity for boredom. Alone among the animals—excluding, perhaps, those we have domesticated—we can have all our (basic) desires fulfilled, but when we do we become bored, a state that none of the other (non-domesticated) animals suffer. To be human is to be bored some or much of the time. And to deal with our humanity fully is to realize and deal with this fact about ourselves.
It's not an easy fact to deal with. I am reminded daily by my students who expect every lecture to be thrilling and entertaining from beginning to end—their expectations are not often met. I am reminded in my own case when I look for distraction or try to get through my work so that I can do something more fun.

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