Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Boredom and the Spiritual Life

Dear Pamela,
I struggle sometimes with boredom.  In fact, I have always struggled with boredom.  I can remember being a child and saying to my mother over and over again, “I’m so bored.”  She would always answer, “There’s so much to do, I can’t believe you’re bored!”  As if it was a lack of imagination that had consistently landed me in the land of ennui.  She was right, of course, there was always something to do. . . a dog to play with, a guitar to practice, a basketball to shoot hoops with, a brother to talk to, a cat to snuggle with, a friend across the street to climb trees with. . . and yet many days none of it seemed interesting at all.  Nothing could hold my attention for long and it wasn’t a matter of ADD, it was plain and simple a case of dissatisfaction with the present options.  
So needless to say, as I grew up I always filled every waking minute with something to do in order to provide distraction: volleyball in the fall right into basketball in the winter, and track in the springtime.  Summers were enormously tedious as there were only sports one day a week until volleyball started again.  There was babysitting and friends, there was church but that was very boring to me as a teenager!  Rather than sit still I would ride my bike for miles each day or race the neighbor boy around the block that was exactly one mile.  Boredom was something I fought off whenever it creeped into my consciousness.  
My grandparents lived in Florida but when they would come home for a month and stay with us I had the best time.  My grandmother was great at entertaining me, she had such an imagination and was always cooking up something delicious.  My grandfather, who was great at just being, smelled like cherry pipe tobacco and would sit in the garage in his captain’s chair just looking out into the backyard, thinking I suppose, but always quiet and at peace it seemed to me.  Both of them were highly intelligent, creative, musical, and stoic in the way they loved me.  But I knew they did!  I could feel it.  Why were they able to “just be” when I had so much trouble with it?  
Kathleen Norris suggests in her book “Acedia & Me” that the struggle with boredom is one of the most brutal spiritual attacks believers have to deal with.  Perhaps learning to cope with boredom, resting in the Lord, spending time with God rather than trying to fill every second of the day with some amusement is a part of becoming more spiritually mature.  Attention to family, vocation, children and spouse- even when things are getting rather mundane- can be a spiritual discipline that leads to a deeper connection with Christ.  
So, Pamela, my friend, I want you to know that I’ve been working on this boredom thing.  You know me . . . you know how I get, always looking for the next hill to climb, the next challenge to tackle, the next subject to master.  I am trying to just “be.”  Instead of filling every moment, I am trying to settle down and listen, to pray, to say “Kyrie elieson, Christe elieson” and wait for the response.  I have noticed a little bit more contentment returning when I resist the need to busy myself with something, anything to take my mind off of my malaise.  What are your thoughts on this?  Is there any hope for someone like me who struggles with such listlessness?  
Yours truly,

Dear Amy, 
I know there is hope for anybody who struggles with listlessness or ennui.  Noticing that you are in that state of being is the first step to diffusing the grip it has on how the next moments will unfold.  
Step one: If you notice that you are struggling with boredom, stop struggling.  Instead of making the blatant statement “I am so bored right now,” see if you can shift to “I don’t know what to do right now.”  In other words, stop trying to figure it out and simply say, “I wonder what would happen if. . .”
I think of what I have learned about being in light winds on the sailboat.  When there appears to be no wind, no amount of adjusting the sails or shifting the course of the boat will effectively get me moving.  What works best, believe it or not, is to take my hand off the tiller, hold very gently to the sheets (the lines that manage the sails) and then wait.  Quite often the boat will “weather vane” towards the gentlest movement of the wind all on its own.  
Step two: Once you say, “I don’t know what to do right now” see if you can remind yourself that not knowing what to do is NOT a bad thing.  That unknowingness may actually help you pay more attention to what God is offering.  
Take a look at how you really are:  

Physically: How is your body?  Are you trying to ignore some very basic need or are you substituting your own way of meeting that need for what God might offer instead?  
Emotionally:  Ok… that’s not always easy.  Sometimes we need to just get in a good laugh, or a sincere cry…. Or express anger or fear.  
Mentally:  Are the thoughts clear or muddy?  Do they move along in a linear way or is your mind dancing around with kaleidoscopic facets?  
Spiritually: (For some reason pastors have a rough time with this!  And I think that is one way the “enemy of our best self” flexes power over us)  How are you, child of God, before God right now?  What happens when you hear Jesus say, “What do you want me to do for you?”  Describe your position with respect to God: side by side, in God’s lap, reaching out to God – or perhaps God seems miles away.  
You see, my friend, God always, always has something to offer to us, every single moment.  Furthermore, God knows much, much more about how we are than we do.  That may be why we don’t get “it” – because we think we need something far different from what God knows we need!  God is always offering what God knows will equip us so we will be available and equipped to go out to love God and serve others in amazing ways.  
If you acknowledge that you are clueless about what to do with any given time span, it opens up the opportunity to be more dependent upon God’s guidance.  Whether you feel dull or weary or just plain flat, these are all indications that you aren’t receiving what God is offering!  
After all, God is creative, dynamic and always working to move us closer to love and beauty and wholeness.  God is always inviting us to listen to how God will use “us” – after we have been formed (or transformed), nourished and guided in God’s presence, the Living Word!    
Holding you in prayer. . .

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