What better way to spend a snowy midwest winter evening than curled up with a cup of hot cocoa and Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness. It was written in 1930, but it’s still very much appropriate and inspiring. It was recommended to me from a dear friend about, oh, a year ago. I found it at my local Borders and I’m finally getting round to reading it. His name has been cropping up a lot lately, causing me to finally investigate his philosophy further.
I’m on chapter Four: Boredom and Excitement. I’ve been feeling a bit of angst because the year is nearly up, the girls have been in school for 4 months and I still haven’t decided if I am going back to school or work, finish the two novels I’ve started, or start doing work again on two of my blogs. I’ve been feeling a little bored, restless and directionless.
We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.
Girls nowadays earn their own living, very largely because this enables them to seek excitement in the evening and to escape ‘the happy family time’ that their grandmothers had to endure. Everybody who can lives in a town; in America, those who cannot, have a car, or at the least a motor-bicycle, to take them to the movies. And of course they have the radio in their houses. Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel.
Nor have the lives of great men been exciting except at a few great moments. Socrates could enjoy a banquet now and again, and must have derived considerable satisfaction from his conversations while the hemlock was taking effect, but most of his life he lived quietly with Xanthippe, taking a constitutional in the afternoon, and perhaps meeting a few friends by the way. Kant is said never to have been more than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house. Marx, after stirring up a few revolutions, decided to spend the remainder of his days in the British Museum. Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye.
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.
I wonder what good old Bertie would say (if he were still alive) about the internet and instant access to all kinds of diversions.
It’s quite an interesting and extremely relevant book. I’ve been learning to deal with boredom…especially since I had quite an interesting life before I quit my job at the genetics lab. Still…after 6.5 years of being a stay at home mother, I’m not quite capable of enduring fruitful monotony. I go a little bonkers from time to time, and go a LOT bonkers, usually about mid-winter. But I have plenty of reading material, and a few friends with whom I see or converse with on a regular basis while the husband and the girls are away at work and school.
I’m pretty careful with the girls, and strive to not fill their lives every moment of the day with adult-directed activities. They have one extra-curricular activity (4-H club that meets once a month) and they have tv/video/computer -free time during their days. My oldest daughter taught herself cursive in her free time last year so she had a jump start on it for third grade, and just this weekend, checked a book out on how to make pop-up cards and made a great one in for her grandmother for Christmas.
I don’t know how much success they’ll have in dealing with boredom, seeing as how they really have less opportunities to be bored than I did as a child. I didn’t have the internet, but I did have access to the Encyclopedia Britannica. I spent time catching lizards in our backyard, not extra points on the video games. If my mother was around, she ignored my sisters and I completely, unless we were fighting. I do have to admit I wasn’t so good about it before, but I’m getting better at giving them the space to create their own fun.
I do know that I want to ensure that my daughters aren’t simply chasing after the happiness in life through typical channels of achievement, status and money. I’d rather they be capable of deriving satisfaction from the boring parts of life as well as the exciting ones.
Come to think of it…that’s what I want for me too.