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Philosophy: On Why Things Lose Meaning

By Nathaniel Read

London, United Kingdom

It is never too late to be who you wished to be (The New Yorker / Geoff McFetridge)

Have you ever felt that your train journey gets duller every day? Or that your meals have become monotonous? We all have aspects of our lives that we find tiresome, and it is, in my opinion, the things that we repeat most often that seem the most boring. It would be wrong to suggest that everything, including emotions such as love and happiness, loses meaning.

Boredom is an innate part of the human soul. There is a very significant advantage in being bored. If we say that boredom is the knowledge that your potential skills and interests are not being put to use, then this is indisputably a characteristic of humankind that has been there from the very beginning. To survive, humans had to constantly make decisions and use every advantage at their disposal to stay alive. As these skills became more developed, it became more important to try out new things. Thus ideas such as Nietzsche’s principle—“what doesn't kill you makes you stronger”—became a critical part of the human mindset. Boredom, therefore, is to a certain extent what has allowed humankind to be dominant on earth.

It would be fair to point out that having a competitive advantage is vital for all life, and therefore all animals need boredom to cope. Yet it was imagination that allowed humankind to conquer the earth and made boredom possible. Creativity, after all, means cheating the mechanisms of the world, in order to stay alive. Therefore, many creative mediums are ways to hide from boredom. Humor, for example, is a unique way of hiding from the dull monotonous aspects of life. Art, drama and literature are all ways of expressing creative thoughts and are fundamentally based on perceptions about the world which have kept the human brain active and engaged.

Yet even though boredom has in many ways helped the development of mankind, it is something that I believe is naturally repellent. I would argue there has been a constant search for a final escape from boredom. For many centuries the cure to this problem, along with many others, was religion. When it gradually became clear to some people that pausing the passage of time through faith was not the answer in the U.K. after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, an empty moral void was left and hence another desperate search began.

As the middle class developed out of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, industrial capitalist systems came into being, creating the powerful economies we know today and setting in motion the material progress which supposedly had the final aim of finding peace and happiness. From the beginning, the base meaninglessness of it all was well known and felt. In 19th Century Britain this was mainly shown from the passionate time and energy spent both trying to realign the industrial revolution with God, and the constant determination to expand the British Empire's borders as if to escape from what they had created.

This boredom sadly also took its toll in more hostile ways. As rich aristocrats of the Victorian times tried to find ways of enjoying themselves, it was enslaved people who had to do the more brutal menial labor which was so agonizingly dull as well as painful. The full horrors arguably did not hit home to the godless upper class until the First World War in which the carnage was so widespread that a completely new wave of thinking overcame humankind.

In Russia, this desperation to find some meaning to life led to communism, while the West tried and failed to pretend that this gaping hole in the capitalist ideal was nonexistent. These sentiments produced books such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the U.S. and The Stranger by Albert Camus in France.

Since then, more peaceful times have returned, or so some would say. New forces—social media and video-games for instance—seem to offer a shallow escape from the dullness of life. Every advertisement at a subconscious level is intended to convince you that their product will somehow make your life better and technology, particularly social media, is the most damaging, addictive way people find to escape their daily situations. The problem that humankind has tried and failed to grapple with is how to cope with the meaningless of life. Time means everything is temporary and the truth ultimately holds no purpose but to convince us we are intelligent. Money has no innate value but is rather based on the accepted worth of certain pieces of paper. The clearest explanation given that I have found on the ultimate meaning of so many activities was by Stephen R. Covey in his funeral experiment. He argues that if you simply think about what you want said at your funeral you have found your definition of success. So, despite a lengthy search through religion and politics using the imagination, everyone's way of escaping boredom is different. There is no final answer, and George Eliot was perhaps closest to finding one when she said, “It is never too late to be who you wished to be.”

The views expressed in this article in no way reflect on the opinion of the Editorial Board or of The Iris NYC. The opinions expressed are of the author only.

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