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Veteran: This Boredom Punctuated By Moments of Fear Feels Familiar

It seems like war but it doesn't have to be all bad. When have we had this much time for deep contemplation before?

As most of the world hunkers down and social distances, the pain of our current condition is amplified by all the time we have on our hands. Going broke or feeling isolated is never easy, but at least during normal times we have an abundance of tools to distract ourselves with. What do we have now but more bad news, empty streets, and endless hours to mull? For most Americans, it’s an experience unprecedented in our lifetimes.

But something about it all feels very familiar to me. The constant low-level anxiety punctuated by brief moments of fear. The general feeling of this being a time of exception, where our vision is focused and priorities reexamined. Even the mournful way the entire experience has, despite injunctions to stay at least six feet away from each other physically, renewed our sense of living in a shared community. In some very important ways, this pandemic has the familiar mood of combat. I feel as if I’ve felt this all before, during my two deployments to Iraq as an infantryman. And perhaps because of my experiences, the boredom of social distancing feels like an old acquaintance.

I don’t think many people appreciate the value of boredom. And it can have value. In my book Did You Kill Anyone?, I dedicate an entire chapter to boredom as one of the things that I, perhaps counterintuitively, miss about my experiences in the military, along with hierarchy, community, tradition, honor. And though it might seem strange to list boredom alongside those other, far grander words, it’s just as vital a part of the military experience.

Everyone knows the cliché about war being boring, but what often gets left out of the discussion is the quality, not just the quantity, of the boredom. Anytime you’re forced to be bored for vast stretches of time, you enter deeper into it, as it were, and so experience it differently. This may turn out to be the case with many people and the boredom forced upon us by our current pandemic. In a war, you become almost a connoisseur of boredom. As I write in Did You Kill Anyone?, “You begin to see the intricate patterns of your own mind at work inside of the boredom itself. Nervous staccato rhythms of thought droop into languid melodies. Your reveries eventually feel less desperate. You’re no longer lost inside of vast segments of time, but somehow have yourself become part of the flux. You’ve adapted to it. The boredom is still boredom, only it’s become interesting and natural feeling.”

The more you resist boredom, the more painful it is. Lean into it at a more dramatic angle, however, and it might become useful, if not interesting. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler found his vocation while serving five years for armed robbery. Inside the walls of his cell, he discovered what is I think the normal state of the world, typically hidden from us by the demands of our cult of frenetic distraction:

As the days passed, I was discovering that there is no interior milieu, but only, remaining here in my cell and under their mnesic shape, in a sense in a hollow, the remains, the defaults, the artificies of which the world consists and through which it finds its consistence. I no longer lived in the world, but rather in the absence of a world, which presented itself here not only as a default, but as that which is always in default, and as a necessary default [un défaut qu’il faut] – rather than as a lack [manque].

Which is a beautiful, but complicated, way of saying that in prison he was able to cultivate the distance required to engage in deep contemplation. There are rings of the monastic to it, of the pain of boredom coming not from having “nothing to do,” but from confronting the cheapness that undergirds so much of our normal lives. The meaningless movements between strip malls, the video games and fast food.

The late novelist David Foster Wallace, in his last unfinished work, The Pale King, discussed boredom as the pain that keeps us from even more painful revelations. He writes:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there…surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarket checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.

Just as physical pain warns us of physical damage, maybe psychic pain warns us off confronting the deeper and more profound issues of self that always attend us, even if occluded, the deep meaninglessness within us. In this sense, boredom is almost a symptom of a deeper cultural and spiritual malaise, an indication that the underlying issues need treatment.

The German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes about this possibility in his book The Burnout Society:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity – which include philosophy – to deep contemplative action. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible. Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention. A rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes characterizes this scattered mode of awareness. Since it also has a low tolerance for boredom, it does not admit the profound idleness that benefits the creative process…. If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new.

Han’s prescription for boredom is to find the hidden meaning behind every motion, not to frantically speed up or quantitatively add to the motion. If walking bores you, don’t run. Dance. If talking bores you, sing.

Where did the meaning come from that illuminated the boredom while I was at war? From others. Getting bored to distraction is dangerous in a combat zone. Fall asleep or look away for long enough while on guard, and an insurgent could have enough time to plant an IED that could kill or maim the person next to you. This sense of shared responsibility for one another’s lives didn’t make things entertaining, but it gave each moment heft and tangible meaning. The boredom was there, but it was brought to a fuller life, as it were, through love.

I can’t help but see the same process at work during this pandemic. Just like in a combat zone, each personal choice you make will have an effect on your neighbors. Lapses in judgment or momentary oddball freakouts will reverberate through the health of the entire community. Knowing this should be enough to give your boredom a proper sense of scale. The distance between one another, and between us and our normal diversions, will remain, but it will also, to borrow a phrase from Walter Benjamin, come alive.

Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris ReviewBookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.

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