This post was first published at Fr. Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
The word “sin” is out of fashion these days. There is something medieval sounding—puritanical—to this short, three-letter world. It also has an air of judgmentalism, an ironically unforgivable faux pas in today’s culture. Without an acknowledgement of sin, and more broadly, truth, we can find ourselves drifting slowly and comfortably into a sea of numbness, or a “culture of relativism” that many in the Church have spoken about.
I think part of what makes such a descent so easy for us is the comfort our modern lives afford. We aren’t ever hungry, thirsty, cold, warm or lacking in any basic need. Instead, we have constant recourse to a host of pleasures and goods that literally—only kings had in the past. Our potential for the good life—what modernity in all its brilliance can lift us up to achieve—seems limitless. Yet, even in the midst of this great human achievement, we see an undercurrent of something. It’s a dulled monotony seeping out from behind a culture of consumerism, pleasure, entertainment, excess.
It’s boredom. Many people aren’t happy or sad, they’re just bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.
Whenever I hear the word “bored,” a specific image from my childhood comes to mind. It’s a Saturday afternoon in front of the TV watching a rerun of a sitcom I’ve seen several times already. It’s not any one particular show, just any one of them from the 90’s (Family Matters, Seinfeld, Boy Meets World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, *YOUR SHOW OF CHOICE HERE*). The sterile burst of laughter from the cued laugh track, the bleached images scrolling on the screen, the dialogue clipping in a clichéd manner with just the right measure of corniness—for some reason it’s the image burned into my mind when I think of being bored. I’ve been here before, I’ve seen this episode already, and I have nothing to do but stare at this loud, colorful box and let the hours slip under me. There is nothing wrong with watching reruns on TV or just lounging around sometimes, but when that state of restlessness seeps into our whole lives, creating an underlying state marked by a loss of passion or lasting meaning, then it becomes a problem.
Boredom. Apathy. Ennui. Monotony. Lethargy. Acedia.
There are lots of names we can use to describe such a state. And although it isn’t as painful or horrible like being in a state of suffering, it can be spiritually more dangerous, for at least suffering offers a type of mirror, reflecting back to us that we’re really here—that we’re alive.
It’s a state of hyper-superficial contentment, where we’ve had our fill and then some on all of the “small happiness” we can ever dream of. Christoph Cardinal Schönborn speaks of the small happiness in his book, Happiness, God, and Man, as being:
“Those joys in life that bring a little brightness into our all-too-often dreary routine: a good meal, a refreshing sleep, a cold glass of beer on a hot summer day…”
There are still many in this country—and many, many more outside of it—that do not have even these small joys. But many of us do. And for those of us who do, it’s a tremendous blessing. However, it has the power to numb us, keep us just “happy” enough to stay put, to not seek the great happiness—friendship with God. And it can also stave off the desire to know truth—to be able to seek moral and universal truth in such a way as to procure ourselves a meaningful and happy life.
If we’re assailed by this state of numbness and boredom, then we lose sight of our sinfulness and need to seek help. Walker Percy explores this state, which he calls “the malaise,” in his novel The Moviegoer. In one passage, he calls attention to the power of such a state in desensitizing us to sin.
“Christians talk about the horror of sin, but they have overlooked something. They keep talking as if everyone were a great sinner, when the truth is that nowaddays one is hardly up for it. There is very little sin in the depths of the malaise. The highest moment of a malaisan’s life can be that moment when he manages to sin like a proper human (Look at us, Binx—my vagabond friends as good cried out to me—we’re sinning! We’re succeeding! We’re human after all!).”
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
It’s in acknowledging our sinfulness, gaining the clarity of vision to see ourselves as fallen—not what we know we should be—that we have hope to decide to change or not. However, if we don’t see that we’re not quite right, then how can we begin to change? Like a match thrown into the grey of a raging sea, there is little hope for lasting light. We don’t even know there is darkness for which we’re in need of a flame.
Percy also speaks of how such a state, again though seemingly benign and harmless, points to a spiritual malady:
“And then I can’t help wondering to myself: why does she talk as if she were dead? Another forty years to go and dead, dead, dead.”
Dead sounds an awfully lot like bored. But how do we speak about sin? Or, at least, the idea of objective truth? If we can’t even agree that there is truth to be sought, then how can we possibly begin to search for it?
“Yes, man must seek the truth; he is capable of truth. It goes without saying that truth requires criteria for verification and falsification. It must always be accompanied by tolerance, also. But then truth also points out to us those constant values which have made mankind great. That is why the humility to recognize the truth and to accept it as a standard has to be relearned and practiced again.”
Pope Benedict XVI
In my own life, the realization that I needed to seek truth accompanied the realization of my true fallen nature. Someone could have told me I was caught in the “malaise” and needed to break from it and seek truth—and consequently God—but I could only see that after coming to terms with my need to be healed of my sinfulness. And I don’t mean sinfulness in a way of slugging my arm around the shoulder of all of humanity and blithely saying that “no one is perfect” or “we’ve all got our faults to bear” with a wink and an “oh well” smile. I mean an honest assessment of how I’ve failed to live rightly, to love others and seek to bring about a better world. To live a life of meaning and purpose that naturally, and necessarily, involves giving my self for the sake of others. And finally, as a response to that, getting on my knees and asking God to be made right—to be forgiven.
Of course, we have hope in Jesus, who has the power to break us from this spiritual boredom. And God’s grace continues to work mysteriously, ineffably, in the lives of each one of us. Yet, in order to allow God to break the spell we have to see ourselves as being sick—of needing grace to help make us new and whole (something that will only come to full fruition in death). It’s in trusting in his mercy—mercy offered through sacraments like the Eucharist and Confession—that we can avoid becoming bored and find lasting joy and meaningful happiness—it’s in seeking Christ’s truth and forgiveness that we can be saved from wading neck-deep in the mud of malaise.
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