We are a generation “bored to death.” At least, so argues philosopher R. J. Snell in a recent essay by that title—and unfortunately, his diagnosis seems pretty accurate. This is not to say that we are an idle people. On the contrary, as Tim Kreider recently observed in his popular New York Times article “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” we moderns are so preoccupied with our never-ending to-do lists that “Busy!” has become a stock response when we are asked how we are doing. But paradoxically, busyness and boredom are not antithetical, and our culture is presently drowning in both.
Kreider believes that our age’s characteristic busyness is merely compensating for our boredom. He notes that those who complain of busyness most vocally are “almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve ‘encouraged’ their kids to participate in… They’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” What they might have to face is boredom and existential emptiness.
Such emptiness is common enough that it has become a familiar theme in entertainment. Popular films like Fight Club and Revolutionary Road depict characters who are somehow stuck in and deeply dissatisfied with their typical modern lives. Perhaps Brad Pitt’s Fight Club character Tyler Durden says it best: “An entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars… We’re the middle children of history,” he laments. “No purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual war. Our Great Depression is our lives.”
Durden is obviously about as nihilistic as they come, and the fact that he has resonated with so many viewers gives witness to the pervasive temptation to nihilism that attends our collective existential crisis. Like Tyler Durden, so many of us are living disconnected from and unfulfilled by reality, despite being the busiest people in history and having a limitless supply of entertainment at our fingertips. Even the word “entertainment” indicates that we presume boredom is the norm. Fight Club’s Tyler Durden rouses himself by engaging in acts of violence and self-destruction. I typically opt for a movie or a magazine, but regardless of the means, we are both trying to escape from the same empty and discontented experience of reality.
According to Dr. Snell, the most remarkable thing about the radical existential boredom plaguing our age is that this attitude towards reality is historically unprecedented. In fact, philologists tell us that pre-modern vocabularies didn’t even have a word for “boredom” as we mean it today. Apparently, no previous people felt the need to coin a term for this general dissatisfaction with everyday life. And yet, somehow, boredom has become the characteristic complaint of modernity. So what could have brought this phenomenon out of obscurity into the prominence it enjoys today?
Drawing on the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, Snell offers one plausible account of this dramatic shift, based on the difference of beliefs between pre-modern and modern peoples in regards to the inherent significance of the material world. Whereas moderns tend to approach the things of this world as meaningful only insofar as they choose to bestow some meaning upon them, Snell says, our pre-modern predecessors “lived in an enchanted world where meaning was not created but rather found in things themselves.” To pre-moderns, “a bone fragment from a saint retained the sanctity and curative power of the saint, rogation days were particularly good days for planting crops and ensured a bountiful harvest, or a procession of the Virgin’s image could drive evil spirits away.”
Snell believes that we are pathologically bored precisely because we have lost this enchanted understanding of the cosmos. And yet, under the influence of the Enlightenment, moderns have traditionally celebrated the shaking off of this mystical vision. For now, or so it is claimed, we are free to interact with the world on our terms, rather than the world’s. We can manipulate it as we see fit and for the ends we deem desirable. We take pride in our technological domination of nature, as we see ourselves as a people who have “progressed” farther than any who came before.
But despite these laudable technological advancements, we now find that, having stripped nature of her intrinsic meaning, purpose, and power, we are uninterested in what remains. We have conquered the world, but in doing so we have made it existentially inhospitable—so we become infected with boredom, then distract ourselves with as much busyness as we can squeeze into our days.
Walker Percy, the great twentieth-century psychiatrist-turned-novelist, makes a different but complementary diagnosis of what he calls “the modern malaise.” Himself a scientist, Percy is concerned that though the modern scientific worldview tries to provide concrete, definitive answers about ultimate truth and happiness, it fails to illuminate the meaning of daily life: “[The scientist] has settled everything except what it is to live as an individual. He still has to get through an ordinary Wednesday afternoon.” On the one hand, we moderns believe—and correctly, to an extent—that we can explain the world via investigations of the physical sciences.
But on the other hand, even when we have explained away the entire cosmos, we find that we ourselves are left over. Percy calls this rift “the San Andreas Fault in the modern mind.” Our lingering need for a sense of meaning does not fit neatly into our explanations, and our explanations tell us nothing about how to live minute-to-minute.
Thus, once again, boredom enters the picture. Given all of this, is there any hope for a recovery, for an overcoming of boredom, for a reintegration into our lived existence in the cosmos? Having been intimately acquainted with the modern malaise, I am interested not only in diagnosing the problem, its scope and cause, but also in grappling with a solution. And after much trial and error, I have come to believe that the cure-all for what ails modern man can be found in celebrating what I call “the liturgies of everyday life.” There are many such liturgies, but my personal favorite is brewing a good double espresso.
In recommending this espresso-making liturgy, I am not suggesting a Starbucks run, and I am certainly not advocating popping in a Keurig “pod.” I mean that each morning I actually take ten minutes and make a real coffee: I warm up the machine, prime the water lines, heat the portafilter, grind the beans, tamp the grounds, replace the portafilter, run the water, and pray for crema. I admire the marbling of the drink, savor the aroma it puts off, and enjoy its rich flavor. Then I take another ten minutes to carefully clean the equipment and return it all to a pristine condition.
Perhaps you are inclined to see this practice as just another distraction from my boredom and one that will itself become boring if I repeat it often enough. But this misses the point, which is not to escape the present moment by distracting myself with yet another nugget of “entertainment,” but on the contrary, to embrace the moment, to put myself, whole and entire, into the activity at hand. When I fully engage with this process of espresso-making, the practice takes on a liturgical dimension that is the key to its curative power. To be liturgy in the relevant sense here is to be a self-contained social ritual, complete with a predetermined script for me to enact. I do not create the form of the practice, but instead instantiate a form already established in my cultural tradition.
Espresso is only one of many such liturgies one could select, but it provides a particularly good illustration of several features of an effective liturgical practice. First of all, brewing an espresso is eminently physical, which reminds us that we are material beings in a material world, an order ordained by a God who took on materiality.
Deliberately involving ourselves in the physical stuff of this world is a lived remedy to spiritualism, to the heretical idea that only the immaterial spirit is good and holy. Brewing an espresso battles not only this error of Manichaean spiritualism but also that of existential nihilism, the doctrine that life has no purpose or meaning in itself. Of these two false philosophies, nihilism is far newer. Spiritualistic dualism predates the Incarnation (Platonism) and has infiltrated Christianity via heresy from the earliest days of the Church (Manichaeism), all the way through the European Middle Ages (Albigensianism) and colonial America (Puritanism), remaining with us today in many pernicious forms. Nihilism is a comparably recent development. While it is true that there was a great diversity amongst pre-modern cultures in terms of what they believed about the meaning of life, they all at least agreed that it had one. From enlightenment-seeking Buddhists to eudaimonist Aristotelians, no one seriously thought of human existence as purposeless. Existential absurdity, at least as a popular philosophy of life, only became widespread in the last couple of centuries.
So how does my espresso liturgy combat nihilism? This is where the self-contained aspect of liturgy comes into play. Because liturgical practices are performed not for some external end, but simply for the good of the practice itself, they remind us that human activity is inherently meaningful, that our lives have value over and above the values we choose to assign to them. I take twenty minutes to make espresso not because it kills time or distracts me, and not even because it keeps me awake for my morning meetings. I make espresso because I love it, because it is my way of engaging with and celebrating the goodness of God’s created reality in the here and now. By involving ourselves in liturgy, we realize and express the richness of the present moment. We say no to boredom, and no to nihilism, through our engagement with the ritual before us.
Consider a counterexample to the purposeful process of espresso brewing. Using a Keurig, an automatic and accelerated alternative to classic espresso, communicates that the process of coffee making itself is intrinsically worthless, that it is merely instrumentally valuable as a means to some extrinsic end—perhaps caffeination.
But even caffeination, unlike the total experience of espresso, is not pleasing in itself but only insofar as it helps us achieve some further end, like not falling asleep at our desks—which is itself only useful insofar as it makes us more efficient at work—which is good only so we can bring home a paycheck—and so on. Value is continually deferred. Of course it is difficult to avoid boredom and embrace the moment when the good I am pursing is ten steps removed.
Espresso-making then, or some comparable liturgy of daily life, battles boredom by reminding us of the value of our being-in-the-world, situated in a particular place and time. In his essay “Bourbon, Neat,” Percy praises the Southern practice of preparing a cocktail at the end of a workday, which he believes beautifully embodies the daily transition from work-life to home-life. Commenting on Percy’s essay, Michael Baruzzini reflects, “Looking to the concrete helps us discover the Christian notion of sacramentality. It is in water that we are born again; it is with bread and wine that we encounter Christ in the flesh in today’s world. It is these things that make our Christianity more than an academic exercise.” Thus Baruzzini answers Percy’s earlier question of how to live minute-to-minute on a normal Wednesday afternoon by saying, “Just do it.”
In other words, do the things that let you live out your role in this cosmic story of creation. Be the Christian you were called to be by singing a hymn or going to Mass. If you’re a married man, kiss your wife. Enact your paternal script by playing catch with your son or helping him with his math homework. “If you want to be these things—a husband, a father, a son of God—there are things to do to make it real,” writes Baruzzini. These activities are precisely what I mean by the liturgies of daily human existence. It is by embracing God’s created reality through these liturgies that we take up our place in the world, to enact the script written for us by our Creator.
I said earlier that our culture is simultaneously drowning in boredom and in busyness. Snell claims that our problems stem from a loss of enchantment with the material world. Percy suggests that such problems are redoubled by our idolatry of modern science, which can tell us nothing about how to live from moment to moment, day to day.
The liturgies of everyday life save us from both of these errors, for such liturgies involve us with the physicality of our world, so as to reinforce the power and the goodness of material creation. They also give us a minute-to-minute script: We simply do the things that are fitting for us in virtue of our various social roles. We come to such activities, to such liturgies, with a purposeful engagement. We enact them for their own sake, and we cherish our involvement with them in the moment. It is for this reason that I call espresso the cure-all for what ails modern man: not because espresso will heal him, but because espresso-making, as liturgy, can.