The Antidote to Boredom

Many Christmases ago, a relative of mine received what was then a new toy.  The toy was an oval track with a battery-powered booster on one side that propelled a Hot Wheels car around the track.  The car would be shot out of the booster at high speed, then slowly decelerate as it made its way around the track before passing through the booster again.  Barring the batteries losing their energy, the cars would shoot around the track one lap after another.

By contemporary standards, the toy isn’t impressive at all.  Yet, I’ve never forgotten the sight of those tiny cars flying around the track, losing speed, and then being rejuvenated by the booster.  Later, when I began to teach religious studies, I offered the toy as an apt example of one of the most important contributions that religions make to human life. 

Let’s put the toy aside for a moment, and think about time.  As far as we know, humans are the only species that has any sense of time—time past, time present, and time future.  All living things live in time, but only humans are aware of time.  One way to grasp the importance of time in our lives is to note that humans are the only species that feels boredom—and boredom is something none of us like.    

We experience boredom because we have an insatiable desire for meaning.  We want everything to be meaningful—our classes in school, our jobs, our marriages, our friendships, our movies and books, and even our leisure.  Boredom, by definition, is what we feel when our activities and relationships lack sufficient meaning.  When life becomes too routine, too much of the “same old, same old,” time feels flat, uneventful, and boring.  

This brings us to one of the oldest and most important contributions that religions have made to human life.  All religions break up time by giving us “holy days,” from where we get the word “holiday.”  When life became too much the same, too routine, religions offer days that feel special.  On those days, we might dress differently, eat different foods, and do different activities.  The key feature is that holy days do just that—they feel different.  

Remember that booster on the Hot Wheels tracks?  That’s what holy days have always done for humanity.  They give us a break from the ordinary and “re-new” us; that is, they make us feel new.  

While all religions offer holy days, Judaism is the one religion that has most fully met our need for renewal.  Judaism does not just offer holy days throughout the year; Judaism offers a holy day every week—the Sabbath.  

To appreciate how radical the Sabbath was in the ancient world, we need to remember that other civilizations at the time required people to work from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.  Talk about drudgery.  If a person from one of those cultures were to ponder the question, “How should I define myself?” the most accurate answer would be “I’m a worker.  I work to live.”   

In the ancient world, there were no weekends, and no days off, except in Jewish communities.  If a traveler entered a Jewish town anytime between Friday sunset and Saturday sunset, she or he would see something strange.  No one would be working, not even the animals!  

I suspect the ancient traveler’s first thought might have been that the Sabbath idea didn’t make economic sense.  Now, however, no one doubts that days off contribute to worker satisfaction and productivity.    

But the Jewish Sabbath was not just a day to kick back and relax.  The Sabbath gave rest not just to the body, but also to the spirit.  In Judaism, the Sabbath was and is the day when a person doesn’t answer the question “How should I define myself?” with the answer “I’m a worker.”  The Sabbath is the day when Jews answer that question in this way:  “Today on this Sabbath, I remember who I really am.  I am a child made in the image of God.  Today, I am royalty.” 

Now that is what I call true rejuvenation.