This interview was from the January-February 2006 Issue of Homiletics
Richard Winter is the Professor of Practical Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
Educated at the University of London, he is a Member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (U.K.).
Dr. Winter came from the English L’Abri to head Covenant’s counseling program in 1992. He is a qualified clinical physician with a specialty in psychiatry, who served as Senior Resident in Psychiatry at Bristol General Hospital in England. As an elder, he has served in a variety of ministry and leadership roles in the church. Dr. Winter not only teaches counsel-ing but models the knowledge, respect and compassion of a Christian counselor. He is the author of The Roots of Sorrow: Reflections on Depression and Hope, Choose Life: A Christian Perspective on Abortion and Embryo Experimentation and Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment. His most recent book is Perfecting Ourselves to Death: The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism.
His office at the seminary is at the Francis Schaeffer Institute where we met with him in late August just as hurricane Katrina was hitting New Orleans.
HOMILETICS: Surely, boredom is not a uniquely American phenomenon?
WINTER: Boredom has been with us since the time of Adam and Eve, since the futility of life after the fall with the struggle against the difficulties of gardening and farming and the difficulties in their relationship after things went wrong. It’s a phenomenon that’s always been there, but I think that at different times in history people are bored for different reasons. We’re in a time of history where we have so much technology — we’re so far removed from the agricultural lifestyle and contact with nature that we have particular problems.
HOMILETICS: But even the early church fathers complained about acedia, and connecting that with boredom and sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.
WINTER: The monks certainly suffered from boredom in their study of the Scriptures and the routines of their daily lives and their prayer vigils. A lot of it was very repetitive.
HOMILETICS: Maybe this accounts for some of the interesting glosses on the manuscripts!
WINTER: That’s true! But I think they struggled with it, and they saw it as a sin, as something they were responsible for, that they should be able to change by a greater work for God, or love for God and love of the disciplines of the spiritual life.
In contrast, we, today, tend to blame the environment when we’re bored. We don’t see ourselves as responsible. We say to the world around us, “Make me feel good. Entertain me. Give me something else to make me feel interested.”
HOMILETICS: Whereas in the early 20th century and the 1800s, when you got bored, the options that you had were much more participatory and interactive. You were with your family, there were close community ties that offered opportunities to disengage yourself from that boredom.
WINTER: Exactly. This is really where I got interested in this topic, through a book by Patricia Spacks. She noticed in English literature, from about 1750, a gradual increase in references to boredom and a larger increase in more recent times. And she was speculating, “Why is this? Has there really been an increase in boredom?”
Part of it parallels the change from an agricultural to an industrial society, so that people were living much more in the context of community and family, and the things they did for their leisure pursuits were making music, telling stories and so on. Whereas now in our own time, the family has tended to disintegrate much more and we each have our own thing, and because of the electronic entertainment industry, everyone has their own “command center” in their home where they go on their own in a solitary pursuit in front of the TV screen, computer screen or video screen. So there’s a huge change in the way people entertain themselves when they’re bored.
HOMILETICS: The word “boredom” doesn’t appear in the literature until the 18th century.
WINTER: There are other words we use. In the French, we have the word ennui which means “to annoy, to frustrate,” which is a good description of boredom; you feel frustrated, annoyed with life. It isn’t giving you something that you want. There were different words we used, but the word “boredom” didn’t really didn’t come into the English language until about 1750, and gradually multiplied in literature —
HOMILETICS: — as the experience of it became more common?
WINTER: Seems to be. And in my book I trace different reasons why that might be.
HOMILETICS: So how do we know when we’re bored? How does Richard Winter know when he’s bored?
WINTER: Well, the word ennui really describes it. The annoyance, the irritation. I want more out of life or this experience than I’m getting. I don’t get bored too often. The place I get most bored is in committee meetings where there are long discussions about things I may not be particularly interested in.
HOMILETICS: But people who think they may be depressed, they may have some knowledge about the signs of depression and be alert enough to seek help. But if you’re bored, how do you know that you’re simply bored as opposed to being depressed?
WINTER: That’s an interesting question. Some people, when they’re clinically depressed, are bored with life. Life seems flat, meaningless, colorless. Some of the monks were experiencing depression. They had a pretty sophisticated way of discerning what was depression and what was a spiritual problem. They had some hints that this might be a psychological or even a physical problem.
But some people get depressed because they’re bored, and some people are bored because they’re depressed. It’s only through hearing their stories and sitting with them, trying to tease out different factors, that you’re able to make that distinction.
HOMILETICS: You said that people who are depressed tend to blame themselves, whereas people who are merely bored tend to blame their environment.
WINTER: True. I still stand by that.
HOMILETICS: So what? Why is boredom a problem?
WINTER: I distinguish between two types of boredom. There’s inevitable boredom: tedious, long classes, boring lecturers, having to mow the lawn for the 15th time during the summer, the mower breaks and you don’t want to fix it again. There are many tedious tasks in life —
HOMILETICS: — You’re speaking from personal experience?
WINTER: I’m speaking from personal experience! Repetitive, irritating tasks. And that’s part of life, and we have to find ways of dealing with that. But there’s a whole other side of boredom. This whole idea that we’re so overwhelmed with input from news media, the Internet, and so on. We’re bored because we’re over-stimulated rather than under-stimulated. We don’t know what to pay attention to, what is really meaningful anymore, or how to focus.
Many people don’t have a framework of meaning for life which gives them a way of deciding what’s important. So they just surf from one channel to another, one wave to another, one video to another. That seems to be a symptom of the modern age, surfing, looking for the next fix. Something to make us feel alive, entertained. It’s a bit like a drug addiction. There’s so much that could entertain us but nothing really grabs us, so we keep moving from one to another until we find something that entertains us for a while and takes away our boredom, but it doesn’t last. So we’re always on to the next big thing.
HOMILETICS: We can’t always be living an absorbing and exciting life, can we? To not ever be bored — Isn’t that an unrealistic expectation? Shouldn’t we expect that we’re going to be bored, but figure out a creative way to deal with it?
WINTER: Yes, if you think of children, many parents feel that their children should never be bored. “I’ve got to keep them entertained.” Whereas boredom may stimulate an internal creativity. Rather than giving them videos and movies. Even traveling in the car long distances, the temptation now is to simply give them a DVD to watch. Whereas we used to talk, play games, read books, sing songs, and I think it stimulated an internal creativity rather than just relying on something outside ourselves all the time.
So there are parts of life that are inevitably boring. We need to expect that. There are parts of marriage that are boring. But they should stimulate us to creativity.
HOMILETICS: Are there periods in our lives when we’re more likely to be bored?
WINTER: Certainly teenagers talk a lot about boredom.
WINTER: Right, the whatever culture. Teens who have been bred on electronic entertainment expect a lot. We use the word “exciting” a lot. Even youth group leaders in church use the word “exciting.” This will be the most exciting thing you’ve ever done.
HOMILETICS: Because they can’t really say, “Come to this great meeting, it’s going to be the most boring thing you’ve experienced!” [laughter]
WINTER: They raise expectations that everything should be exciting. And we do this in church when worship becomes entertainment. But even in middle life, people get bored with their careers, their marriages and so on.
HOMILETICS: So a midlife crisis could simply be boredom?
WINTER: Wanting something more out of life. The danger of living for excitement, rather than recognizing that there are mundane periods in life. And elderly people experience a lot of boredom. People living in nursing homes, living alone without much family contact. That’s a tough time in life. As my mother-in-law keeps telling us, “Old age is not for sissies.” It’s a time when you need a lot of courage to deal with illness but it’s also a time when you don’t have much to do.
HOMILETICS: What’s your take on video gaming?
WINTER: Ambivalent. There are many video games that are actually very stimulating to the mind. I am not a video gamer myself. It’s an interactive thing. You’re having to solve problems in the better games rather than just being entertained. But there’s the whole other side of the incredible amount of time, the addictive nature of it —
HOMILETICS: — and the solitary nature of it.
WINTER: Exactly. The fact that you’re doing it on your own. You’re not with other people. It doesn’t build relationship and community. The danger is that some people relate far better to the virtual reality than to reality. Then there’re the ethics of virtual reality: the violence, the sexuality of some of the videos. These are real concerns. The marketing for “Grand Theft Auto” goes: “Bigger, bolder, faster, twisted, more weird. Remove all the boredom, heighten all the action.”
HOMILETICS: But kids get bored doing this? They don’t seem to.
WINTER: The danger is being cut off from people, living in that virtual world and spending hours and hours doing it. And then there’s the ethical dimension of living in a virtual world where another system of ethics is in place.
HOMILETICS: I love the idea that in this culture of entertainment, electronics and technological gadgets, we’re still more bored than ever. So I was curious as to how I should respond to this culture of entertainment. I’ve got so many choices, so much stuff going on, but I’m still bored. What should I do?
WINTER: When dealing with the ordinary boredom, the frustrating things of life, you have to understand that tasks like mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, playing the scales — are all a necessary part of life. For musicians and athletes there’s a lot of repetition in training and you accept that because you know there’s a bigger goal, something you’re aiming for. That’s how we should see washing dishes, mowing lawns — there’s a bigger picture we need to stay in touch with. I want to create a place of beauty and creativity. It’s good for my family that I do this, so that we can enjoy recreation and each other. We’re not always frustrated with each other.
So seeing the disciplined tasks of life that tend to be a bit boring in the context of the big picture is one way to deal with ordinary boredom.
HOMILETICS: What else can we do?
WINTER: In relation to overstimulation, it’s really important that we be disciplined in the way we use the media, whether it’s the computer, the Internet, the amount of time we spend doing e-mails, watching television, movies. When we’re tired, bored, frustrated at the end of the week, we tend to walk in front of the TV; it entertains us, but there’s a danger that our inner resources are shriveled up as a result of that, and die, and we need to — especially in families — sit down for a meal every day with each other, talk over meals about things that are going on during the day, watch TV programs together and discuss them; if we watch movies, don’t watch two or three in a row as many teens do, just for pure entertainment, but watch one and discuss it. Keep the interactive going.
Spend more time interacting with nature. Many people who live in the inner city of St. Louis, they live around concrete. It’s important to help them keep in touch with the natural world, whether it’s through gardening, walks in the park, exercise.
We’ve lost something of the importance and value of ritual and repetition in life. There is something about the disciplines of the daily meal together, of the weekly worship of the community of believers. There’s a sameness about it, but there’s something good about that, too. Chesterton said something about God not getting bored with the sun coming up and the sun going down every day. Children love repetition when you read the same story again and again.
There’s something about enjoying things again and again that we’re losing in this country.
HOMILETICS: And if we could develop a passion?
WINTER: Everyone needs a passion for something they’re good at, whether it’s music or sports, cooking, writing. Something that you can enjoy and really pull yourself in to.
Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist, found that people who were the most satisfied had that sense of integration, harmony and purpose in life, not when they were watching entertaining movies or television — they tended to be somewhat dissatisfied then — but when they were doing tasks for which they had trained themselves over a number of years, like playing a musical instrument, or operating on a patient. Something not too challenging to be frightening, but something not too easy to be boring.
Then, of course, the big picture — how we make sense of life, and what God wants us to be doing in life — these are the things that stand as the framework for all these practical things. Is life, as Ecclesiastes seems to say, meaningless, or boring? Is there a purpose in living and enjoying meals and our daily work as we live before the face of a Creator who made us?
HOMILETICS: That brings up an interesting point. Perhaps Ecclesiastes is the first post-modern document of record. It’s rather hard to escape boredom in a postmodern culture where the search for meaning is so intense and meaninglessness is so pervasive.
WINTER: Absolutely. That’s a huge problem. Even Patricia Spacks — and I don’t see any hints of her being a believer in her writing — she sees the decline of Christianity as running parallel to this rise of meaninglessness. The fragmentation of faith, the loss of meaning and purpose, the loss of there being a sense of any big answers to the big questions of life — it’s often the subject of movies.
Run, Lola, Run, for example. It starts out with the narrator giving all the big questions of life. What am I here for? What’s the purpose of life? No answers come, but it’s a wonderful postmodern film.
Or the one, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. The guy at the very beginning is just looking for something that will make him feel alive. He was in the mundane-ness of a relationship that was breaking down, his rather boring work. There’s no big picture. No answers to the big questions in life. And that’s what Ecclesiastes is getting at, that ultimately if you seek meaning in money, pleasure, or ultimately, “anything under the sun,” it will in the end leave you feeling meaningless. But if you seek to live with the bigger picture, you come to a God who has given us certain things to do in life that give us a sense of satisfaction. God has made us for those things, and even though it’s a fallen, broken world, there will be meaning in them even in the midst of frustration.
HOMILETICS: Ever run into pastors who are bored? Is boredom a problem in ministry?
WINTER: I think the professional, religious person is subject to this. We find it among the theological students here. They know a lot about God and a lot of theory about theology, but as for any life, and vitality and relationship with God and God’s truth about the world, there are often people who become bored if they’re too theoretical about it all, don’t balance it with the practical and the real.
I think the boredom of pastors may be just the boredom of the repetition of their daily task. Quite often I encounter boredom that arises out of a cynicism about life. Boredom and cynicism are often related.
HOMILETICS: Pastors are cynical?
WINTER: They go in with such expectations and hope that the gospel is going to transform people, lives and culture. After some years when they really encounter the depth of the brokenness of life and the difficulties of building a community and building a church, some of them become cynical, because they’ve gone in with a rather over-triumphalist view of the gospel, and aren’t aware of the fragmentation because of the fall and sin in the world.
HOMILETICS: Don’t some feel under-stimulated? Having left the academic world of seminary, the ivory tower, they go out into ministry and miss the stimulus that the academic life provided.
WINTER: They’re dealing with the mundane things of life, and it seems boring.
HOMILETICS: How can preachers address the problem of boredom? What would be a good text? Give us a text!
WINTER: Obviously, Ecclesiastes is a place to start. The contrast between what the teacher in Ecclesiastes is saying about pursuing pleasure and then where he ends up. “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This, too, I see is from the hand of God for without him who can eat and find enjoyment. I know that there is nothing better for man than to be happy and to do good while he lives. But everyone may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil. This is a gift of God.”
There’s something about being satisfied with the simple things of your daily work, sit down with your family and eat and drink and do all this before the face of God. Don’t go after the exciting things of life, the big things, the thing that People magazine think are important. Be content. “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” is another great text.
HOMILETICS: What about the rich young ruler? Was he bored with life?
WINTER: I had thought about that. I guess there’s an element of that in anyone who is hungry for something more.
HOMILETICS: You’ve now finished a new work, Perfecting Yourself To Death and the subtitle is The Pursuit of Excellence and the Perils of Perfectionism. We shouldn’t be pursuing excellence?
WINTER: No, no, no. What I’m trying to do is to discern what is the legitimate pursuit of excellence and high standards and when does that become a pathological and unhealthy perfectionism.
HOMILETICS: Do you see this happening with kids today?
WINTER: I see it happening with kids and adults.
HOMILETICS: If this is happening to kids, isn’t it a parent problem?
WINTER: A lot of it is that the culture is pushing the parents to achieve, to perform, to look great. The focus that I take is on appearance and performance. Those are the two things that we tend to value in our culture. The things Hollywood says are important, the things the sports world says are important. Some people are perfectionists in both of those areas to a real extreme, which leads them into depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, relationship breakdowns. That’s the unhealthy perfectionism.
But we recognize that the many kids and adults who do well are people who have high standards and who work hard, who are disciplined, organized and structured in their lives. They go a long way in life. As long as it doesn’t get too strong, that drive to be perfect, flawless doesn’t get too overwhelming.
HOMILETICS: I just read in the paper the other day that some cosmetic firm was now going to start using “real women” in their print advertising, women with “thunder thighs” — and those are the words they used. They’re going to use this type of woman —
WINTER: — the imperfect woman.
HOMILETICS: The imperfect woman, and there were “imperfect” men, too. But when you were talking, I was reminded of what Elliot Currie says in his book The Road to Whatever, talking about kids, and he says that one of the problems with the “whatever” kids in a “whatever” culture is what he calls the problem of contingent worth. Many parents insist that their children not only do well, but they have to do better than every other child. They have to be the best. As parents do that, kids start to feel that their worth is linked to how well they perform — at ballet, piano, basketball, and so on. And this may be a function of parents wanting to be the best parents.
WINTER: And not able to be secure and content with who they are. This is what I deal with in the second half of the book. Obviously, if my identity is rooted in something bigger than what the world thinks of me, or what other people think of me, but is rooted in the knowledge that God values me, he loves me, he accepts me as I am warts, flaws and all, then I’m not living all the time in fear that I’ll be rejected, that I won’t have an identity if I can’t live up to certain standards.
And now my desire to do well is motivated by my love for God and a desire to serve God well rather than what people might think of me.
HOMILETICS: I’ve understood perfection in a utilitarian way, rather than in a moral sense. This glass that I’m drinking out of, is perfect insofar as it does what it was designed to do. It holds water. It’s not perfect if I ask it to do other things, act like a hammer, for example. Jesus said, “Be perfect as you Father in heaven is perfect.” The word there for perfect is the same word that’s used to describe what the fishermen were doing when they were mending their nets. They were perfecting their nets. I understand perfection then to be who God wants me to be in my humanness.
WINTER: That’s a wonderful way of describing it. The word is also used for maturity — being what you were intended to be. It’s not so much about how you look, or how you perform, although what you do is important, but that comes about through a transformation of character, not your body or your clothes.