Rick G, sends along notice of this insightful essay that ran in his local paper.
A RECENT HEALTH newsletter for senior Rhode Island citizens declared that boredom has become a major societal problem, even a health hazard, for many elderly as they enter “the sudden silence gained by retiring.” Many social workers agree that the lack of a daily agenda, the absence of tangible, daily challenges and the low expectations that society demands of the newly retired all contribute materially to an emerging sense of uselessness, of cognitive unemployment, of being a member of the walking dead, experienced by so many elders as they enter the golden years.
Some whose active lives had been previously over-laden with overlapping responsibilities and successive challenges actually look forward to the appointment-free retirement years when the occasional visit to a physician’s office is the only notation in their week’s calendar. And boredom, for them, is not a blight but a benediction. Doing nothing, of course, is not the same as being bored. And an empty mind is not necessarily the precursor of doom, especially if that mind possesses a strong sense of identity. And furthermore, repose is not the same as depression. Did anyone ever describe a cat dozing in a sunny window as exhibiting boredom?
What, then, is boredom? Boredom defines a negative state, a kind of inner emptiness, a feeling of restless weariness, a purposelessness, an ennui. And unless the boredom is resolved or replaced by purposeful activity, many fear that they will then implode into a pile of dust. Boredom is a corrosive worldly weariness that can seep into every dark corner of the psyche, and sooner or later can infect all humans. Against boredom, said Nietzsche, even the gods themselves struggle in vain.
Boredom, for both young and old, is a destabilizing emotional state that may elicit anxiety, uncontrolled restlessness, even panic. And in a state of high boredom, people may then resort to irrational misadventure. Bertrand Russell once thought that at least half of the sins initiated by mankind are caused by a fear of boredom. Boredom, accordingly, may prompt a litany of unreasonable responses including overeating, compulsive infidelities and risky behaviors. Yet, according to historians, no society has yet surrendered to boredom nor had been pushed into collapse by its onslaught.
Being boring may, in fact, be one of the more enduring qualities of an aspiring politician. To bore when giving a speech is really to fill the air with repetitious platitudes, with meaningless pronouncements and with sedative declarations. The average listener, his thinking thus unchallenged, will therefore be content; the rare skeptic will mutter: “A very significant oration, but what does it mean?” And the newspaper, next morning, will assert that both the speaker and his speech were memorable.
Humans are not taught how to grow old, either gracefully or in anger. We are uninstructed in managing the awesome change in our flight plans from “I am what I do,” to “I am only what I am.” Boredom in a child is a transitory happening, easily overcome by some novel amusement or new companionship and then is forgotten. But boredom in the elderly, on the other hand, represents a different mindset and, accordingly, represents a different and more complex array of problems. Boredom in the senior citizen, like pain, is the foe of his or her inner spirit of satisfaction and peace of mind; indeed, even his or her sense of equanimity and personal identity. Boredom in the senior citizen, unlike dandruff or thinning of scalp hair, must therefore be addressed assertively, recognizing it as the early warning of a mounting depression.
Boredom in an elder person is the person’s mind declaring that his or her inner resources are exhausted, that the world of challenges has withered and that his or her role as a varsity contestant in life is irreversibly past. Boredom in an 80-year-old is the worrisome forerunner of loss of focus, loss of self-esteem and possibly depression.
To be boring is like having halitosis: only the recipient becomes affected. But being depressed by boredom, in the elderly person, becomes a measurable risk to health and the harbinger of a troubled, spent soul.
Stanley M. Aronson, M.D., a weekly contributor, is dean of medicine emeritus at Brown University ( email@example.com).