“Psychologically, we define boredom as the pain a person feels when he’s doing nothing or something irrelevant, instead of something that he wants to do but won’t, can’t or doesn’t dare. Boredom is acute when he knows the thing and inhibits his action, e.g. out of politeness, embarrassment, fear of punishment or shame. Boredom is chronic if he has repressed the thought and no longer is aware of it….”
— Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd
…by adolescence [chronic boredom] is generally evident in all classes of the young, hanging around, reading comic books, or watching TV. It is evident in their notion of what is acceptable behavior, in their sexual paranoia, in their inability to think up anything interesting. Their hearts are elsewhere and the don’t remember where.
It increasingly dawns on me the Trump ascendancy has dealt a crushing, if not fatal blow to that unified unquestioning bottom-line faith, that is, faith that we are on the right track, that life gets better, that technology will save us, that after all is said and done, this is the best of all possible worlds (untroubled by the vexing question, “for whom?) Knowing the highest office in our land is now occupied by someone impossible to admire, so patently vulgar, so without the capacity for reflection, so shallow, self-serving defensive, infantile, narcissistic, inarticulate, bombastic and vile has left good liberal people disoriented, reeling, depressed in a new, impersonal way that has no words for it, the only actions still possible a few dispirited jabs called “resistance,” that looks for hope in any public official who contradicts Trump, no matter how lacking in heroic fiber he/she may be in any other respect.
This disheartened mood among once-confident liberals has been bad for our little coffee shop business in Utica, indisputably in decline since Election 2016; it is making our going, as small business owners in this hostile corporate global marketplace environment very much tougher than it already was. Recently I spoke with a young friend about the decline in our Cafe business since the Trump win. The young woman, a smart and sensitive girl from one of the neighboring towns, said that she understands people not coming out. Since the election she said, she has wanted to close in to herself, to avoid interactions: I’d rather get my coffee and go,” she said.
Suddenly I saw it. I saw that what had been driving those halcyon Pre-Election 2016 days for Cafe Domenico was some serious optimism among our liberal patrons. Bernie Sanders had raised the old hopes for a more fair society – Goodness still exists and we can talk about it! Hurray! – but, more soberly, Hillary would win the day and the world would remain the way “it’s supposed to be.” I spoke with many people in the following weeks and months who confessed – without being asked – the deep depression into which the election outcome had thrown them. By now, for me, this faith in the neoliberal status quo is no longer simple to fathom. Though I share their pain in part, I am unhappy that I must receive additional pain from their pain!
But what if this demoralized, on-the-verge-of insanity mood may be the crack in that unquestioning liberal faith, may be the crisis needed to disillusion people from their fascination with the “idols,” of technology and faith in progress, to go looking for their lost strength and energy and verve, located solely in innate, inner, indigenous (counter-establishment) wisdom? Thus radicalized, taking up their lives imaginatively, as heroic adventure, would render people incapable of adjusting to the status quo, decisively resistant to the soul-deadening context. Their revolution would be foremost one of the spirit, a chorus of “I can’t” [i.e. participate in a system in which I must bury my own hard-won soul, my creative expression, the Lord’s voice in me.] Though another frightening alternative scenario is equally possible (i.e., the crisis may simply cause people to identify with something easier, that does not require such painful rearranging of the mental/psychological furniture; suddenly, people who’ve been proud to think of themselves as tolerant and welcoming to black people and immigrants may begin to appreciate the point being made by overtly racist people, i.e., about laziness, free rides, paid for with my tax dollars, etc.) I prefer my dream of “anarchist reconciliation.”
Our small coffee business was started precisely, and partly selfishly, for the purpose of encouraging a broader and more inclusive community for ourselves to be part of, one truer to the cosmopolitan possibilities of the city of Utica than the (mainly white liberal) enclaves we’d found ourselves stuck in at mid-life. We understood the Cafe as a “vision,” very pie-in-the-sky; we accepted our commitment to it as radical in terms of the risk we were taking and the faith needed to stand by the leap we’d taken – without a safety net. To our way of thinking, this made it attractive! The response was so consistently positive, over 14 years, the Cafe so loved, and having such a positive influence, especially among the young, that it was possible to keep the Cafe’s true radical origins – that is, origins that most people would not “get” because they could be explained only in terms that would make our liberal friends uncomfortable – in the background.
That bridge our business succeeded in making, spanning between neoliberal, affluent, professionalized America and a more marginalized, bohemian, artist-and-poet-constituted, youthful and anarchist “Left,” has now been severely compromised. Their optimism shaken, their faith in the ultimate benignity of capitalism threatened, these people who’ve accepted the dominant corporate-friendly, humanity-hostile reality “on faith,” have nowhere to go but to withdraw, to avoid talking about it. They have not – so far in their lives – developed a way to handle real crisis because they do not understand life as crisis. The anti-Trump resistance activities, “throw the rascals out” Indivisibles stuff and so on, – partake of the refusal of the crisis, and therefore do not address the roots of it and can only deepen it. No positive vision inspires them because there is no way to have one; faith in the corporate-dominated reality, in technology, in “paid for” science and the testimony of experts to tell us who we are has for too long detoured people away from native common sense, intuition and indigenous wisdom; traditional calls to revolution no longer can energize them.
This hopeless scene, this mayhem and disarray we are assaulted by in our daily “news” injection is the consequence – as far as what I am qualified to talk about – of unchecked religiophobia; the result of an unchallenged fear of imagination, of embodied common sense, of the eternal reality transmitted through the souls of men and women. Convinced that souls are part of the superstition that belongs to the dark past (the baby thrown out with the bathwater thanks to the supercilious defensiveness of many atheists and secular progressives) and that imagination is no match in this competitive dog-eat-dog world for pragmatism, we remain under the sway of unscrupulous first principles that place endangered profits over endangered species, cultures, precious children, and the earth.
Back in the 1950s Paul Goodman had the temerity to charge the entire society with failure to assist young people (all young people, not only the obvious problem, the “juvenile delinquents”) in their task of growing up to adulthood, with failing to assist them in finding their destiny, the deeper calling of life to their individual hearts. He knew that picking up that something would pit them not just against the dominant culture, but against that culture in themselves. Though the 60’s flower-child renaissance may have been influenced by Goodman’s wonderful and wise book, the message that this would necessarily be a religious undertaking did not get through. What we are left with is evermore entrenched, dumbed down mainstream consciousness, no longer bored, thanks to the wondrous and ever-present screens, but entirely cut off from that heart abandoned back on the trail leading to the promised job; we are left with the consternating blind liberal faith that is as fundamentalist and dogmatic as the most right-wing religious “nut job’s.”
Goodman’s analysis of chronic boredom as a response to life in our society explains – particularly for baby-boomers – how we got where we are. We are members of a society that, mostly without discussion, sets the condition by which people bury the thing we want to do “but won’t, can’t or don’t dare,” either out of “politeness, embarrassment, fear of punishment or shame.” For most of us, the entire matter of wanting is reduced to “things that are bad for us.,” all bound up in evil and shame.
It is difficult-to-impossible for me to remember just how much most people ‘s consciousnesses are limited to the reality that makes no reference to intrinsic wanting, or longing, including the (religious) longing to be devoted to something. Too difficult to remain in touch with in daily life, one simply becomes used to – and to some degree or other, adapts to – the way people have learned to behave when they no longer even remember wanting, dreaming, or following personal visions. Having entirely circumvented the great adventure our one personal womb-to-tomb life offered us, we are sitting ducks for being sold pre-designed “happiness.” Collectively, this is our society! Granted the greatest freedom any society had ever before known, we have decided not to be free! Having misplaced our hearts, we reject love and love’s intolerable restrictions; our imaginations are chained and we are unfree.
I write about this problem, because I’m very much in it and have found no “solution” other than to faithfully work my creative imagination, fabricating a whole out of this my real in-the-world life that refuses its native wholeness and withholds from me the community for which I long. Fifteen years later, I continue to draw inspiration from our Cafe, the concrete expression of our hippiesque anarchist vision, which to this day Orin and I love immoderately. I keep my writing centermost, no matter how little it matters to any besides me. Living this life that makes sense in my imagination and is confirmed only there, the aloneness I experience is close to – and I hope I am not melodramatizing! – unbearable. My “antennae,” so I think, perpetually cast around for those others who’ve chosen the “wrong” path, the “outsider” path, the way of being led by imagination, those others who have chosen that something they wanted, (and consequently carry its burden of suffering). Weird though it makes me, this brotherhood I seek is one that connects through the pain common to human beings. In this season of “joy” relentlessly promoted by commercial interests – most of them not small Mom-and-Pop businesses – it might be worth noting that the great empty joylessness of this season is precisely due to the following “soul fact:” the experience of joy can’t be had without the prior pain, these are conditions set down in the soul, amenable only to imagination.
The real crisis that I pray the newly disillusioned will realize we’re in, is the world in which both pain and wanting are strictly forbidden, a world controlled by a relatively few for their benefit in which being human, as in humanly frail and vulnerable, like the experience of joy, is subversive, utterly threatening to the destructive powers that be.