Boredom has a lesson

by Brian Harper

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Soren Kierkegaard called boredom the root of all evil, which, to me, is a bit of a stretch. C.S. Lewis’ claim that pride is "the essential vice, the utmost evil" seems more plausible.

Nevertheless, boredom is powerful. Any honest examination of my life makes that clear. I tend to believe being bored means being boring and thus avoid tedium at all costs — which, of course, is impossible.

I volunteer at a home for men with physical and developmental disabilities. The word "volunteer" is also a stretch. It implies I perform some task, which I usually do not. Sometimes I help a resident write letters to his friends documenting the video games and comics he plans to get for the following year’s birthday or Christmas. Occasionally I assist in cleaning up a mess.

Mostly, though, I do not do much of anything. I talk with some of the residents: Weekend fishing trips, an upcoming performance of "Grease," and the Green Bay Packers' undeniable superiority over the Chicago Bears are common themes. I sit idly as a friend who cannot speak scratches my arm and holds my hand. I offer my face so a man with Down syndrome can plug my nose and laugh. I call the names of trucks as another nonverbal resident points them out in his favorite picture book.

Each visit is a moving experience, one of those indispensable reminders of kinship's ability to transcend language and circumstance, as well as a lesson in how fortunate I am to have the life, health and freedom I do.

It is also kind of boring.

I feel terrible saying so, but it is the truth. Try as I might, I cannot match the residents’ enthusiasm for the Seth Rollins/Sting vendetta when they watch "WWE Raw" at 7 p.m. each Monday. When my letter-writing acquaintance educates me on the rich history of arcade games, I feign interest. And when my truck-loving friend rolls his wheelchair toward me, I wonder if we might try a different picture book just this once.

I imagine Kierkegaard's warning against boredom stemmed from an awareness of the ways unoccupied minds eventually turn to corrupt fantasies. My frustration flows from its reluctance to deliver an outlet. A book left at home or a smartphone's dead battery means a train ride with no antidote to dullness.

Worse, enough time without these tools to distract myself inevitably clears the way for reflection — on matters of importance but also on my shortcomings, pettiness and imperfections.

Lying within these messier meditations, however, might be one of the greater insights my friends at the home have to teach me: authenticity. Though their weaknesses are obviously undeserved and not the signs of moral failing that mine often are, there is no masking or hiding from them. They are front and center, dictating most of the details of their lives and leaving my friends little choice but to bear them openly and with incomparable grace. How, I ask myself, can I be brave enough to have the honesty they do?

Before I began "volunteering" at the home, a Jesuit brother told me I would encounter the Kingdom of God there. At first, I did not know what he meant.

I have found, though, that more moving than my friends' integrity in the face of hardship is their unwillingness to let frailty — their own or anyone else's — get in the way of their loving and being loved.

If my visits sometimes leave me bored, they never make me feel the need to prove my worthiness or be anyone other than myself. In facing themselves and me with that same level of acceptance, my friends show me that while God’s love may seem distant, boring, confusing, challenging or painful, it is also unconditional.

[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. His writing has been featured in America magazine, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, NCR and various other publications. You can find his work at]

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