This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by . . .
So sang the rock band America in 1974. Forty years later, lonely people are probably streaming Stranger Things.
At a conference sponsored by the Wall Street Journal last year, Reed Hastings, the CEO of Netflix, offered a purpose statement for his entertainment juggernaut: “Fundamentally, we’re about eliminating loneliness and boredom. . . . That’s what entertainment does.”
Eliminating boredom and loneliness. Chew on that for a while, and you’ll realize that only one of these issues is truly a problem, while the other is actually an opportunity.
Is Boredom a Problem to Be Solved?
Let’s start with boredom. The entertainment industry expects us to see boredom as bad, which is why advertisers, sponsors, filmmakers, and game-makers collaborate to create shows, movies, and games that will capture our attention and keep us preoccupied. There’s money to be made in eliminating boredom.
But is boredom always a problem, or could it be a possibility? Talk to people whose job it is to make things with their hands or create things in their head, and they’ll tell you that great things happen when your mind runs free.
For most people, eliminating boredom means choosing activities that demand little to nothing of you. But there are better, more rewarding ways to respond to boredom. You can pick activities that stretch your mind and heart. Or, you can simply look around and become interested.
G. K. Chesterton said there is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject, only an uninterested person. Boredom, in this light, can be thrilling:
I can recall in my childhood the continuous excitement of long days in which nothing happened; and an indescribable sense of fullness in large and empty rooms. And with whatever I retain of childishness (and whether it be a weakness or otherwise, I think I retain more than most) I still feel a very strong and positive pleasure in being stranded in queer quiet places, in neglected corners where nothing happens and anything may happen; in unfashionable hotels, in empty waiting-rooms, or in watering-places out of the season. It seems as if we needed such places, and sufficient solitude in them, to let certain nameless suggestions soak into us and make a richer soil of the subconsciousness. The imagination can not only enjoy darkness; it can even enjoy dullness.
Boredom provides the path for imagination to tread upon. It also provides the path for self-discipline. Without boredom, how do we teach children how to behave in a restaurant, how to sing and pray and listen in church, or how to politely carry on a conversation that isn’t immediately interesting?
We shouldn’t treat boredom as a problem to be solved. So, thanks, Netflix, but boredom is not something we want to eliminate.
Can Netflix Cure Loneliness?
Now, on to loneliness, which we must admit really is a problem. The writer Thomas Wolfe described loneliness as “the central and inevitable experience of every man.” It’s an overstatement to say that our sadness at being without friends or company is the central experience of every man, but for many in our society, it certainly feels this way. Loneliness is often accompanied by feelings of inadequacy, brought about by the absence of deep friendships or the presence of merely shallow ones.
Loneliness has its opportunities, just like boredom. Maya Angelou described music as a refuge: “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl by back to loneliness.” From the pain of her loneliness came the blessing of her poetry.
But loneliness is still a problem. The solution to loneliness is the love of friends and family, a companionship built on commitment to a person’s good. But the statement from Reed Hastings indicates that he views boredom and loneliness as a single problem with a single resolution: distraction.
Irritated by boredom? Yearning for companionship? Here’s your prescription: kick back, relax, and take two hours of Netflix. But how exactly does this work?
Are we supposed to imagine that the cure for loneliness is to sit back and enjoy the nostalgia of the Stranger Things kids and their low-tech friendships?
Is loneliness solved by a friendless couple spending their weekends binge-watching shows on Netflix, or the solitary individual scrolling endlessly through Netflix’s library, hoping to find something of interest?
Is loneliness resolved when the members of a family all retreat to their own tablets or devices to watch the shows that have been tailored to their interests?
I think not.
Loneliness is a pang in the soul; Netflix is a patch that keeps you going another day. Here we have not the cure for loneliness, but medication for enduring it.
Boredom, Loneliness, and the Church
Boredom and loneliness. The church has the opportunity to be countercultural.
In a world addicted to distraction, we can show that boredom can be beautiful. We are more human, not less, when we resist the urge to be perpetually entertained every minute of every day. Boredom is not a problem; it’s a prerequisite to the good life, the prompt that opens our eyes to the sheer wonder of existence and can transform us into interested people.
The solution to loneliness is found not in Netflix, but in fellowship with God and with one another in Christ. The reality of this fellowship goes beyond pious platitudes to the foundational promises of the gospel—the God who is never lonely yet ever longs to be God with us, and the church where God’s love is to be embodied in real-life people who come alongside us in this journey of faith.
Christianity envisions a day when loneliness is no more. But that day is not here yet. In this fallen world, many a believer will face periods of intense loneliness—distant from God, or isolation from a spouse, or aloneness in a crowd. Still, the church knows the day is coming when loneliness is destroyed, and our faith in that future reminds us that our deeper need is not to be distracted from our loneliness, but delivered from it. In the meantime, God’s Word gives us the resources to mitigate this problem with Spirit-filled fellowship.
Truly Connected Life
Boredom and loneliness often go together. Our inability to embrace boredom keeps us from going deeper in our relationships. Then, shallow relationships boomerang back in the form of loneliness and more boredom.
The church must show that the truly connected life mustn’t be defined by internet access or phone usage or Netflix streaming. It’s the life where we are connected to God and to one another, where we know and are known, love and are loved.