Boredom, Curiosity, and Imagination

Boredom as a symptom of frustration

It’s a curious thing to look back on one’s childhood retrospectively with all the insight that we have gained hitherto, now that we are fully fledged adults, as it were. I vividly remember the hot and languid summers of my childhood growing up in the Midwest, when time was not sacrosanct, productivity appeared not in the vernacular, and all things were done “just for kicks.” “I’m bored,” I would complain to my mom—as if I was a diviner petitioning the gods for some recondite oracle to resolve the human condition. Her response, of course, was nary so esoteric as it was banal: go play outside, go ride your bike, play a board game, &c. &c. The answer, of course, being that no medium or seer was needed, for the world was as large as I needed it to be, and infinite possibilities laid at my feet.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.” -Albert Einstein

Now that I am a father of two children, the situation has inevitably (re: ironically) reversed itself, and I find myself impelled to bring out the self-discovery in my kids that I myself was forced to find many decades ago. If you are a parent, indeed, you should be chuckling in approval. There is nothing quite as vexing and irritating as hearing your kid proclaim—as if she is a newsie heralding breaking news in the town center—that she is BORED, the day after her birthday or Christmas. As if she didn’t just receive innumerable new gifts and toys waiting to be played with. While I won’t get into my disdain for the electronic gizmos, iPads, gadgets, and Whatchamacallits (indubitably part of the problem as a creativity crusher), I’m of the opinion that the boredom that is so often confessed is merely a reflection of frustration with the world not conforming to our wants, desires, or expectations. More fundamentally, “not getting what we want” i.e. more TV or screen time. Yet as the Rolling Stones aptly pointed out, you might not be able to always get what you want, “but if you try sometime you’ll find, you get what you need.

Accepting reality “as it is”

As childhood dissipates and the burdens of adulthood are thrown upon us, the routine becomes rote and the spark, that magic that once danced around us like pixies and sprites in our youth, is ostensibly gone without a trace. Poignantly, we fall into the trap of keeping in our head, muttering if only and I wish to ourselves, as the world we craft in our head and the real world become divorced in an insuperable divide. This is a precarious position to be in since it does not equip us well to deal with the tragedies, pain, and sufferings that inexorably befall us. A much more advantageous position is accepting reality as it is: embracing all that the world has in store for us, controlling our emotions, and reacting appropriately given each unique scenario. And this is precisely what we need—accepting the world as the fatefully ineluctable reality that it is.

Ray Dalio, founder and current co CIO of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, offers some of his wisdom, after many years being in business and leadership, in his book Principals. Indeed, this is the first of his pragmatic principles to success: “Embrace Reality and Deal with It.” While I think the entire chapter is quite pertinent, not least the book if you have not read it, suffer me to quote some portions at length to illuminate my point.

Understanding, accepting, and working with reality is both practical and beautiful. I have become so much of a hyperrealist that I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty of all realities, even harsh one, and have come to despise impractical idealism…Most people fight seeing what’s true when it’s not what they want it to be…Don’t get hung up on your views of how things “should” be because you will miss out on learning how they really are. It’s important not to let our biases stand in the way of our objectivity. To get good results we need to be analytical rather than emotional.

Principles, 134-140

Ray’s insight is terse, potent, and insightful because it’s true. It stands as an antidote to a lot of the victim mentality that percolates our culture presently (which on my good days I find ingenious and creative and on my bad days I bemoan its decadence and degeneracy). While the victim points the finger at reality and blames the world for their squalid situation, the hyperrealist knows that while they might not have power over the external forces moving through the universe, they do have power over their emotions and freedom over their actions. To be sure, Ray’s wisdom, while profound, is anything but novel. The stoic school of philosophy has been preaching ataraxia since Zeno founded the school in Athens Greece in around 300 BC, and Chrysippus developed the nascent school into a prodigious and enduring philosophy in the 3rd century BC. Consider Epictetus, the first century Roman Stoic who was born into slavery and had persistent physical debilitations. He states as follows:

Of things some are in our power, and others are not…Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish [not in our power] to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will blame both gods and men: but if you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.”

Enchiridion, I

If we can stay curious, we can retain instances where we encounter that divine awe”

When you find yourself in a sticky situation, you retain a sense of power knowing that you are in total and complete control. Not of the situation, which very well may be grave, but of your response and reaction to it. As Ray Dalio put it, he likens life to a game, with different outcomes. Each situation should be analyzed, solutions postulated and stress tested, and the best one plugged in with the hope to produce an even better outcome. In this we are constantly growing, strengthening our minds and fortitude, and establishing our place in the world, which we ought to have found has retained its magical charm in the end. As Dylan reminds us, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”

Curiosity As The Antidote to Boredom

I recently read an article in the New York Times discussing how awe can improve your health. While the article was interesting, science is just now catching up to what philosophers and theologians have known for millennia. This is Moses standing before the Burning Bush; it is Aristotle first gazing up at the black night sky spangled with celestial fire; it is Elijah riding up into Heaven in a chariot of flames; it is Newton pondering why the apple fell straight down as opposed to sideways; and it is Einstein, pondering the mysteries of the universe. These moments are the ones where curiosity fuels modes of exploration that precipitate us into experiencing, discovering, and creating the awesomeness of all Reality. If boredom is merely a symptom of frustration at the external world not conforming to our desires, then curiosity is the antidote to this underlying noxious frustration. Indeed, to be curious about the world is to take it as it is, rather than being vexed at the way that it is. If we can stay curious, we can retain instances where we encounter that divine awe; and if we can preserve the sense of awe and wonder at the world, we can jealously protect the vestiges of those childlike, magical sparks, that flitter and flow through the spine like electricity—a conduit of the divine.

My six year old daughter loves to burst out that “she’s bored!” Although she is unable to define “bored,” save “not doing anything fun,” her case is anything but novel. True, perchance I am the strict father for saying no to more TV or another helping of sweets, but the continual rejection of my daughters infantile petitions sets her up for a world of exploration. In due time, she is off on her own reading, building, or drawing, while utilizing her budding creativity in ways that are challenging, wonderful and exciting. She is Alice, who finds herself in Wonderland, or Milo, who is transported through the tollbooth to the Kingdom of Wisdom. If you have read the stories by either Carroll or Juster, you know that they are anything but fatuous kids books; rather, they carry a powerful theme that wonder and awe lay all around us, if only we had the courage to open our eyes to see it.

Imagination Constitutive of Humanity

In Friedrich Schelling’s System of Transcendental Idealism, he lays out in three epochs of the generation of human consciousness—and thereby the external world and vice versa—from one singular ideal principle. His moments consist of original sensation towards what he calls productive intuition, and from productive intuition to reflection. Consciousness is fully raised up above the world of external objects through what he calls the absolute act of will. This is what separates humanity who has absolute freedom, as opposed to the animal kingdom, whose consciousness and acts of will are stuck the necessarry world of presentations. In attempting to explain how the will, which he states must initially be directed towards an external object, can come back around, as it were, and become objective for the self, who is now raised up to self-consciousness through the absolute act of will, Schelling writes as follows:

“So through willing there straightway arises an opposition, in that by means of it I am aware on the one hand of freedom, and thus also of infinity, while on the other I am constantly dragged back into finitude by the compulsion to present. Hence, in virtue of this contradiction, an activity must arise which wavers between finitude and infinity…we shall call this activity imagination (Einbildungskraft)…[For] what is commonly spoken of as imagination is in fact such a wavering between finitude and infinity; or, what comes to the same, an activity mediating the theoretical and the practical…what is commonly called theoretical reason is nothing else but imagination in the service of freedom.”

Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, 176.
“I feel the holy spirit inside/See the light that freedom gives/I believe it’s in the reach of/Every man who lives.” Bob Dylan ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ (2020) “In a real sense the only thing that truly unites us is suffering and suffering only.” Dylan, The Modern Philosophy of Song, 199.

While Kant brought a standard usage to Einbildungskraft, which he used as a cognitive faculty and also for aesthetic judgments, Schelling’s project was always intended to go beyond Kant, and reunite what Kant had ostensibly unsurpassably rifted; viz., both the pure (nature/necessity) and practical (ethics/freedom) domains. Schelling postulates that imagination (Einbildungskraft) serves as a bridge between the infinite and the finite, the ideal and the real, which is accomplished through productive acts of freedom. Art therefore becomes a necessary aesthetic act, unique to humans, whereby humans are able to re(unite) nature (necessity) and freedom, the unconscious and the conscious, the ideal and the real. In this, the progression of self-consciousness marches onward. In plainer terms, the aesthetic, imaginative creativity of humankind is analogous to the creativity of God. What Kant considered unknowable (das Absolute), Schelling reunites: God with man and man with God. While Schelling would further develop the role of imagination in the ensuring decade though his philosophy of Art, he ultimately would introduce a deeper and more fundamental heuristic device to bridge the divide between the ideal and the real, namely, mythology. Art, therefore, becomes one byproduct (also poetry, music, etc.) of the deeper and more constitutive mythological truths inseminated in finite spirit.

Final Thoughts

We, as humans, are not on this earth for very long. While it’s part and parcel of our egotistical selves to assume that what is happening now will continue into perpetuity, this is our society’s biggest flaw. Now is the time to stop, remove yourself from the petulant clamoring, breath, and open your eyes to the awe and wonder that is around us. Redeem the time while you still have it, and let us make like Alice and Milo and set off onwards towards our next adventure. Let us remain curious, let us remain hopeful, and let us accept reality as it really is: beautiful, in all its variegated forms.

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