– Matthew 5:43-44 (Adam Miller Translation)
This past weekend (June 27-29), Adam Miller was the speaker for the Miller Eccles Study Group here in Texas. My wife and I were able to attend the Saturday study group as well as the Sunday Fireside. The study group covered Adam’s latest book Letters to a Young Mormon and consisted of some rather intimate, interactive readings. The Sunday fireside, however, was on a completely different subject; one that Adam has covered in other conferences: boredom. Adam began with an experience familiar to most Latter-day Saints:
Say I’m in church singing a hymn.
I unshelf the hymnal and flip to the page. I sit up straight and clear my throat. I smile. I sing the opening lines. My pitch slides around. My collar is stiff. I wonder if I should have worn a different tie. I sing louder. I spot an allusion to Matthew 5 in the lyrics. I congratulate myself for spotting this allusion. I rub my jaw. Before the end of the second line of the first verse, I stifle a yawn. My shoes feel a bit tight. I keep singing. I remember that I’m supposed to be thinking about Jesus. Rather than thinking about Jesus, I think about how important it is to think about Jesus. I scratch the tip of my nose. I note who wrote the hymn. I remember a friend whose grandfather wrote some of the hymns in our hymnal. We used to have dinner together on Sundays. I wonder what we’re having for dinner tonight. Before the last line of the first verse, I let out a full, open-mouthed yawn. I wonder if we’re going to sing all six verses. I wonder how many hundreds of times I’ve sung this song. I remember that I like this song. I check the clock: ten minutes in. We start the second verse. I’m barely following along. I’m bored.
Boredom, according to Adam, occurs when we reach the limit of what interests us. The implied self-absorption in the adjective “interesting” meets its demise in boredom. Yet, boredom can be a gateway to religious experience; an invitation to move beyond self-centeredness. This is why Adam lists boredom among the fruits of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, boredom…” (Galatians 5:22-23, AMT). In sacrament meeting I almost always find myself reading on my Kindle, largely because the speaker is “boring.” But Adam invites me to abandon my utilitarian approach to sacrament talks and instead seek to understand what the speaker is getting out of it:
- Why did they approach the topic the way they did?
- What makes them view things the way they do?
- What impact did preparation for this talk have on them?
- Are they nervous?
- How did their past week go?
In essence, boredom is an invitation to connect with others. And connection–what shame researcher Brene Brown defines as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”–is one of the building blocks of Zion and seemingly a key factor in divinity. However, boredom doesn’t just arise from inactivity, but can in fact be the description of an activity. Adam used the example of a parent reading their child a book. “You hate this book,” Adam declared, but it is your daughter’s favorite. You’ve already read it five times today, but you sit down and begin to read it anyway. You’re wishing for slit wrists by page three, but your daughter’s laughter inspires you to put more work into the characters’ different voices. Your reading rhythm improves and before you know it, the book is finished and your daughter is happy. Initially, this task was considered of no interest, i.e. boring. Yet, by engaging the boredom, the task took on a new life. This is similar to the Hasidic Jewish concept of “worship through corporeality,” in which the mundane becomes sacred. It is also what organizations often seek to provide for their employees: meaningful work. This is most often achieved by connecting workers with those they serve, what Peter Drucker calls “the meaningful Outside.” The psychological phenomenon of being absorbed in one’s work is known as “flow,” which can lead to “engagement” over longer periods. As the Jesuit priest/accounting instructor in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel notes,
True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk.
Embracing boredom not only eliminates our own self-interest, but it will often fail to capture the interest of others. This keeps us from doing it to “be seen of men” (Matt. 6:5). We might want praise, but the lack of stimulation will likely fail to hold the attention of those who might give it. It is, in some sense, an act of true consecration.
And that’s why Adam’s work is so important. His insights help us uncover the sacred in the mundane.
1. This quote comes from an earlier version of the presentation (there are apparently several). This particular version is entitled “Bored in the Pews: Reading the Sermon on the Mount with David Foster Wallace” pgs. 1-2.
2. Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City: Hazelden, 2010), 19.
3. Wallace, The Pale King, 230. Quoted in Miller, “Bored in the Pews,” 20.