BOREDOM KILLS, and those it does not kill, it cripples, and those it does not cripple, it bleeds like a leech, leaving its victims pale, insipid and brooding. Examples abound.
From science: Worms trained to find water by crawling through a plastic tube soon get bored with the trick. Rather than repeat the simple-minded maneuver, they stop wiggling and die. Rats kept in comfortable isolation quickly become jumpy, irritable and aggressive. Their bodies twitch, their tails grow scaly. But when returned to their rat pals, their ills disappear. Humans kept in sensory- deprivation rooms report grumpiness, a willingness to believe in ghosts and hallucinations about little yellow men with black caps.
From the news: A 16-year-old girl in San Diego three years ago opened fire on an elementary school across the street from her house. With a .22-caliber rifle, she killed the school's principal, a janitor and wounded eight children. In the midst of her sniping she called a local newspaper and said: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."
From history: King Louis XIV, France's enlightened "Sun King," was afflicted one summer in Holland with a deadly boredom. He'd gone up from Paris in 1673 to lay siege to a Dutch fortress, bringing along his queen, his mistress, his former mistress and 150,000 troops. King Louis had figured the siege would take all summer. Instead, it lasted only 13 days. The king and his fractious entourage had time on their hands. A defense minister wrote home: "His Majesty is no longer troubled, except by what to do with his armies." With nothing better to do, Louis attacked a German city, infuriating the German and Spanish Hapsburgs, forcing them to take sides with the Dutch and prolonging a bloody war for five years.
From literature: The "delicate monster" of boredom, Baudelaire warned, would one day eat the entire world in an immense yawn.
Andre Gide, one of the legions of Frenchmen who couldn't seem to find anything to write about except boredom, places one of his characters in a gloomy castle and tortures him with major league ennui: "And gradually boredom, painful and heavy with tears, overcame me. The instant before everything laughed and you laughed at everything; suddenly a fuliginous fog arises from the depths of the soul and interposes itself between desire and life.... It is possible to notice but impossible to be moved; and the desperate effort to burst through the isolating screen of the soul could lead to any crime, to murder or to suicide, to madness..."
The brain -- whether a worm's, a rat's or a human's -- needs something to chew on. At its simplest level, boredom is the brain's pained response to nothingness or to endless repetition. The discomfort of boredom, like the gnawing of an empty stomach, is the brain's way of saying it's hungry.
"It all goes back to the way the brain is constructed, with this constant need to reach out to the outside world," says Dr. Estelle Ramey, a professor of physiology and biophysics at the Georgetown School of Medicine and a longtime student of boredom. She says that every laboratory experiment on the pathological effects of boredom -- as well as the reports of men stationed in Antarctic outposts, prisoners of war, long-haul truck drivers and airplane pilots -- supports the conclusion of a British secret agent held prisoner during World War II. Christopher Burney wrote: "I soon discovered that variety is not the spice but the very stuff of life."
Unfortunately, the human mind in a high- tech society, with endless options for distracting, entertaining and narcotizing itself, cannot escape boredom solely by keeping busy. The bounty and opportunities of American culture, if anything, heighten boredom by accentuating the differences between what Americans can attain and what they settle for.
Ennui, the fancy French word for being bored out of one's skull, emerged first among the nobility of Europe, who had every opportunity for material and intellectual glory -- lacking only the will to get up off their butts. Ennui in the early 1800s, as V.S. Pritchett noted, "was the fashion all over Europe. Everyone who cared about the figure he cut in the world went in for boredom."
In affluent, egalitarian America, most people can now afford the fashionably stultifying misery of 19th century European gentility. Anticipating the bored American teenager who persists in cruising his suburb burning $1.30-a-gallon gasoline; the bored, second- guessed bureaucrat who's given up hope of changing the world and settles for self-medicating himself with alcohol, and the bored working mother whose education trained her to think but whose job demands an even- tempered vacuity, the French thinker Senancour wrote in 1804 that boredom is inexorably bound to civilization: "Ennui is born of the opposition between what we imagine and what we feel, between the poverty of what is and the vastness of what we want."
Saul Bellow, in "Humboldt's Gift," Americanized the idea: "Boredom (is) a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and (is) accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities."
Television, the one-eyed beast blamed for scourges ranging from immorality to declining college-admission test scores, has probably helped bring home boredom to America. It has done so by offering up a splendidly wrongheaded view of how one goes about living the good life.
A well lived, nonboring life can be compared to a healthful, nutritious diet. Not everything in the nonboring life is sweet; much of it, in fact, is rather boring. But it also is filled with ultimate purpose, which makes the tedium tolerable. Hard work and monotony, like spinach and Brussels sprouts, are necessary evils on the way to a judiciously chosen goal. Once the goal is reached, it's time for a little dessert, perhaps some junk food. But television, in the diet of the mind, concentrates on junk food -- youth, beauty, materialism, violence and sex (rarely love). Most network programming and, more important, network commercials skip over the meat and vegetables: boring stuff like how to live a fulfilled, engaged life.
When a viewer compares his life and times to that of the Ewings of "Dallas," where sexual acts and million-dollar deals are consummated before breakfast, he is bound to find himself dull. When the TV is turned off, real life -- the boring real life where there's no luscious blond before breakfast and no free lunch -- seems even more boring. If only a smidgen of this idiotic videoland value system infects the way Americans think (as it surely has), then the spread of boredom is guaranteed.
Boredom, at the very least, helps breed some of America's uglier social trends. The rate of teenage suicide has more than tripled in the United States since 1955, and psychiatrists across the country lay part of the blame to boredom born of unrealistic expectations and frustration. Divorce condemns nearly half of all marriages, and marriage counselors report boredom as a major cause. Drug and alcohol abuse -- which has increased more rapidly in the past decade among middle- and upper-class teen-agers than among the less wealthy -- is caused, in part, by the need to kill time. Boredom is a factor for shoplifters, many of whom can afford to buy what they steal; for industrial saboteurs, who throw wrenches into machinery to protest the numbing monotony of assembly-line work and for housewives who besiege doctors with mystery ailments and undergo unnecessary hysterectomies that give them the kind of attention and legitimacy that complaints about boredom cannot.
There is considerable evidence that many Americans suffer from a boredom which, in the most literal way, amounts to what Kierkegaard called "sickness unto death." Healthy working men who are force.
Ed to retire frequently become despondent, their health declining faster than that of men who continue to work, according to Dr. Jay A. Winston of the Harvard School of Public Health.
"Boredom contributes to a more rapid deterioration of whatever medical problems elderly people may have. They become enveloped in their health problems, whereas a person who is not bored could concentrate on other things," Winston says.
Across the United States, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. has found that prominent (and presumably less bored) men and women live far longer than men and women in the general population. In two national studies comparing the mortality of people listed in Who's Who to that of the general population, the life insurance company found that, for all ages combined, ordinary Americans were 30 percent more likely to die than men and women who excelled in their careers.
Indeed, boredom is so pervasive in American life, so deleterious to economic productivity and the general welfare, that one might wonder why the federal government has never tried to do anything about it. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society might have had a far wider reach if he'd chosen a different enemy, shifting the resources of the then-liberal state from a War on Poverty to a War on Boredom.
Besides suffering and, in some cases, dying from boredom, human beings have the perverse knack of inflicting the curse on others. Lord Byron said the world can be neatly divided between "two mighty tribes, the Bores and (their prey) the Bored." Everyone remembers Killer Bores from dinner parties: Women armed with detailed monologues highlighting the 14 surgical procedures performed on their cat. Men who explain, with elaborate gestures and step-by-step technical specifications, how they repaired the toaster -- even as other guests nod off into their soup.
Bores, like boredom itself, are endemic to civilized society. In most cases, there is little choice but to endure bores initially and avoid them forevermore. Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston Churchill, is said to have hired a waiter to sit in his place in London and listen to the club bore.
Novelist Saul Bellow, who claims expertise in matters boring because of his many years in Chicago, argues that boredom, imposed by a dinner-party prattler or a bloodthirsty dictator, is an awesome weapon, "an instrument of social control. Power is the power to impose boredom, to command stasis, to combine this stasis with anguish. The real tedium, deep tedium, is seasoned with terror and with death."
The Soviet Union, Bellow writes, is "the most boring society in history. Dowdiness, shabbiness, dullness, dull goods, boring buildings, boring discomfort, boring supervision, a dull press, dull education, boring bureaucracy, forced labor, perpetual police presence, penal presence, boring party congresses..."
Any city with powerful people -- people whose identity and self-confidence flows exclusively from their power -- has the potential for great boredom. Washington has more than its share of pompous holders forth who, because of some connection with the White House, the Congress, the press or a fancy law firm, feel powerful enough to torture their acquaintances with self-serving "inside" information.
The potential for bores to run amok in this city is almost limitless. Since a bore, by his very nature, can't police himself, and since his cowed listeners in this power-conscious city are often afraid to walk out on his flummery or throw gravy in his face, there are neither checks nor balances on boredom in Washington. Perhaps more than any American city, Washington knows that "important" people can afford to be dull. The city celebrates dullness, revels in bores -- so long as they have a measure of power.
Even without its bores, Washington, the bureaucratic city, is suffused with boredom. Every working day, whether there is work to be done or not, tens of thousands of federal swivel chairs must be filled with human beings. Unknown thousands of bureaucrats regularly perform duties that insult their intelligence. They prepare reports no one will read; they execute laws Congress forgot it wrote. Michael Maccoby, a psychologist and director of a Harvard University program that studies work in the federal bureaucracy, says the greatest source of boredom in bureaucratic Washington is chronic underuse of mid-and low-level employes: "There are many who come to Washington and aren't allowed to think, who are put in positions where they really can't use their ability."
Poet Theodore Roethke addressed the black hole of bureaucracy in a poem he called "Dolor," but which might better have been entitled The Washington Disease: "I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,/ Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper- weight... All the misery of manila folders... Desolation in immaculate public places,/ Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,/ The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,/ Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,/ Endless duplication of lives and objects."
Smart bureaucrats have learned to elude boredom. At the Federal Trade Commission, according to Robert A. Katzmann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution and the author of "Regulatory Bureaucracy," lawyers locked into endless antitrust actions occasionally are allowed to dance off to prosecute easy, quick-win cases. Without the diversion, FTC morale might crumble, Katzmann says.
On Capitol Hill, minority staffers who have nothing better to do sometimes pursue looney bills. In July 1979, Sen. Pete Domenici (R- N.M.) introduced an amendment to abolish free tickets for the presidential box at the Kennedy Center, unless the president himself used them. Staffers on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee lobbied diligently for the wildly unpopular idea, sending out "Dear Colleague" letters, arguing with straight faces that government waste had to be stopped somewhere. The amendment was killed, but several otherwise unoccupied staffers kept busy.
In Jimmy Carter's White House, former speechwriter James Fallows remembers there was "a constant yearning for a crisis to manage." A crisis, Fallows says, was considered "so much more exciting and more fun than just business as usual. If you had a crisis to manage, you didn't need to think about what to do with your time."
There's a cyclical, inescapable pattern to the boredom of appointive bureaucratic work in Washington, according to Paul Jensen, a Carter appointee who served four years as executive assistant and counselor to Labor Secretary Ray Marshall. The first two years pass quickly, Jensen says, as the bureaucrat figures out how to do his job and luxuriates in his power. It's during the third year, Jensen says, that boredom strikes.
"The issues you see are all the same. They are absolutely predictable. Problems never seem to get solved. You know what the White House is going to say before it says it and that you are going to have the same problems with the committees on the Hill. You get to the point where you start planning foreign travel, regional conferences in Puerto Rico, California or Denver. You take longer lunches and take an interest in on-site tours and accept lecture offers from the Kennedy School at Harvard. You still work 12 to 14 hours day, but all the time you think, "Oh, my God, I've seen this stuff a thousand times before."
Dr. Ramey, the Georgetown School of Medicine physiologist and student of boredom, says the human brain reacts to boredom by either atrophying or groping for diversion. Boredom, in the best of all possible worlds, can be productive -- a necessary interlude before useful, creative efforts. But too much of it, Ramey says, turns the brain inward, cannibalizing itself. Memory fades and the brain can't figure out what to do next.
"Use it or lose it," Ramey warns. A chronically disengaged brain is doomed. To avoid boredom, do something that seems worth your time. If the pursuit of that goal seems boring at usandstimes, don't whine.
Ramey and others suggest that boredom is not a medical but a social problem, a problem best addressed by restructuring society. If America were in the old pre-Reagan, government-can-help days, a recognition of the killing potential of boredom might have helped create a Department of Boredom, with a mandate to liven up American life.
In the Reagan era, of course, there is no money for such a do-good program. One cheap way to address the issue is simply to affix the word "Boredom" to the title of any federal department. For example, the Department of Health, Human Services and Boredom, the Department of Education and Boredom, the Department of the State of Boredom or, alternatively, the Department of the Boredom State.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig, whose vocabulary makes him the ideal leader for a boring agency, could circulate a memo on "boredomification." In almost all cases, with no additional burdens on federal employes, the expanded title would help the public understand what government does.
No one is likely to act on this suggestion and, upon careful reflection, it is probably just as well. Imagine the horror of a civil servant having to labor in the lethal redundancy of an official boredom bureaucracy.