One of the many amazing things about our culture is the reduction in immediate survival pressures. Food production has reached such an amazing rate that our government in the U.S. sometimes pays farmers to not produce food so that the market is not super-saturated. Crime rates are far lower than they were in the past. Technological advances have allowed us to massively accelerate the completion of tasks in the areas of computation, logistics, and communication. The opportunities for entertainment have ballooned to such an extent and so colorfully that one might be forgiven for thinking that we have an economy largely based on providing ourselves with entertainment to fill the time that is no longer taken up with working for our survival.
We have gradually removed the mundane challenges from our lives so that we can take it easy. And we do have it easy, which is precisely why so many of us feel an intense sense of ennui. We now have a large percentage of children who are given so many conveniences at such a young age that they often don’t know how to handle inconvenience, let alone a genuine challenge. The battery running out on their iPod is a tragedy for them. The Playstation 3 breaking down is a catastrophe of epic proportions. Not having a social event to attend on a weekend is a major character flaw. “I’m bored,” is the new mantra of a new generation.
But let’s not leave out adults. Adults allow young people to exist without challenges and hep foster the culture of ennui, letting schools and electronics take over the tasks of parenting. So many adults are largely content with their way of living that they do not seek to better themselves, and instead spend their time wallowing in snack foods and mediocre television programming, which sets a horrific example. Many of us in the West have become so unaccustomed to immediate danger that our fear of it is disproportionate to the severity of the threat and our willingness to face that fear has decreased to nearly zero. We are moving into an age of pervasive boredom, a dangerous listlessness that leads to uselessness.
We are slowly removing one of the most important needs of a human being’s existence: challenges. As a natural result of this removal of our need for challenges, young people are thrust deep into the bland annoyance of boredom and are seeking new challenges. Some are building and/or deploying viruses to destroy the computers of others. Some are spending all their time reading and assimilating information so that they can be the person who knows it all. Some are striving to be the most logical and empirical person with all the right kinds of beliefs about the world. Some just want a plethora of achievements on their Xbox 360. Some want to experience the challenge of parenting by having children at a young age. Some want to be the person everyone likes to hang out with. Some want to be the most fashionable or have the most athletic body. Some want to be toughest gangster or the richest drug dealer. Young people are finding ways to embrace the challenges that have been removed from their lives, and in many cases are not making the best choices as to which challenge they accept or are accepting those challenges for the wrong reasons.
Thankfully, there are some ways of dealing with our lack of challenges that are healthy. Many people have found new challenges that truly improve their character and health, such as martial arts and dance, building furniture and writing poetry, improving nutrition and creating tasty dishes, fostering healthy relationships and doing volunteer work, as well as teaching and learning a wide variety of skills so that others may share in the joy of a life well-lived. Of course, some take even the healthy challenges to an unhealthy extreme by keeping their schedule so full that they have no time to sit back and enjoy some healthy reflection upon the many gifts they have in their lives.
My hope is that we can find an appropriate balance between enjoying our challenges and resting from our labors so that we can end the culture of ennui without driving ourselves into the abyss of constant and unrelenting pressure.