This morning I walked into the grocery store at 7 a.m. to get a cup of coffee. As a side note, I had just finished going for a run, so I was wearing a T shirt and shorts, and I thought, “Man, I look like shit” and I was a little embarrassed to go to the store like that. Then it occurred to me that I looked like nearly every man in America all day long during the summer, and no one was going to notice.
I was getting coffee to sit for a few minutes while waiting for someone, so I was killing time. Given what a precious commodity time is, always in short supply, it’s a shame that we kill it as often as we do. It would have died on its own anyway. While I sat there with my coffee, I was thinking about how we feel about free time, that we long for it and dream of it, and once we get it, we sometimes grow anxious about what to do with it. Go to Disney? Clean the garage? Sleep late?
The basic nature of life begins with the fact that everything, including us, is made out of dirt. It takes an awful lot of work to make sure that dirt remains organized and moving. Somebody needs to grow food and somebody needs to build houses, and if you’re not helping, then damn you for your laziness. It grows from this constant necessity to transform the earth that much of our existence involves work, which can be hard and boring. And in the end, no matter what, it all falls the hell apart again.
So the basic nature of life involves labor, and difficulty, and boredom. Even without the tedium of working, it takes a lot of stimulation to keep our brains content, so the white chamber of boredom is always waiting for us to step into it. In addition, even without considering the need to work, life will unavoidably bring everyone a share of disappointment and misery.
In writing this, I’m not oblivious of the fact that life is also filled with amazingly good things. I’m well aware of sex, sunsets, and supper with friends. We seek the good things—which we may or may not get—but we are guaranteed to experience the pain and boredom at some point. How we use our free time (see how I came back to that?) is not a simple thing, philosophically or physically. Far too many people are so focused on avoiding the pain and boredom of life that they will engage in a wide range of dangerous and destructive activities just for the escape: drugs, alcohol, sex with strangers, gambling, dangerous sports.
Not so destructive, but still sad, are the weirdly frantic efforts of our culture to provide us with something, anything, that might distract us for a few minutes. Over here—Charlie Sheen! Over here—Lady Gaga! Over here—every unashamed triviality on the Yahoo homepage.
To some extent, stretches of free time can horrify us. How are we going to fill that time? Maybe there’s something funny on TV. Maybe someone sent us a text. Maybe one of our friends on Facebook posted a picture of their cat. Maybe…
Or thank God we have the internet.