Mindfulness for Fathers: Louis CK is Wrong About Boredom
In support of a new book I’m co-writing with Michael Stone about the spirituality of family life. Follow the link to support and pre-order.
I have an ambivalence crush on Louis CK. He plays the brave and humiliating role of exposing the swinging sweaty balls of the cultural id. But this doesn’t make him the spiritual teacher so many want him to be, especially if we forget that he’s playing a caricature.
Case in point: his now-famous admonishment, now scoring big hits through the new-age blogosphere, that his fictional daughter (played by the brilliant Ursala Parker) shouldn’t be allowed to be bored, is not a borderline-spiritual encouragement for her to seize the day. It’s a transference of anxiety. If we’re laughing, it’s to protect ourselves from the most difficult question a child will ask: “What should we do now?” The truth is that nobody knows. If we wanted we could let that soften us, but that softness won’t make anyone laugh.
The dialogue goes like this:
“I am bored. I am bored! I’m boooored. (etc., etc.) Why don’t you answer me?”
“Because I’m bored is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing. So you don’t get to be bored.”
The gag is that this is a hostile response to a four-year-old, whose “Why don’t you answer me?” carries all human pathos. Even to a peer, the answer would be heavy-handed. Not that Louis’ character would care, which is at the heart of the joke: here’s a guy who speaks to children as if they were his competitors for resources and emotional attention.
Joking aside, the answer is both untrue and ineffectual. On the untrue side, every four year-old knows that the world is great, big, and vast. And no four year-old has seen none of it. In fact, her entire being is trembling at the threshold of the all of it. The four year-old has had plenty of time to navigate her internal worlds. She knows that stories, dreams and fantasies go on forever. So yes. She understands these things, and feels much more than she understands. “I’m bored” doesn’t mean “I’m uninterested”. It means “I don’t know who I should be. I feel empty and full. I feel confused and sad. What should I bother doing?”
On the ineffectual side, the answer pretends to kindle the girl’s wonderment, but it actually burns the tenderness of her question. She’s asking a question about how to manage emptiness, and the answer is overwhelms her with stuff. Instead of letting it be an open moment in which the parent can share in the revelation of uncertainty that the child makes new for him, Louis crams irritated gumption and panicked work-ethic down her throat, guilting her with what she already knows but was too innocent to accept, guilting her for naming a condition to which we dare not confess, guilting her for being so rude as to ask for help. We laugh because he releases the valve on our own guilt over doing the same thing.
In his essay “On Being Bored”, British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips delivers an understated bitch-slap in answer:
Is it not indeed revealing what the child’s boredom evokes in the adults? Heard as a demand, sometimes as an accusation of failure or disappointment, it is rarely agreed to, simply acknowledged. How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him – as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.
But you can’t take time if you’re terrified by your own boredom. You have to move things along. Be rushed, maybe, in the way that you were rushed as a child. You can’t tolerate your children taking time or else they will expose how your own forward movement is in a state of perpetual derailment. So there’s no surprise when a father overpowers his daughter with an answer several cynical clicks north of her intellectual paradigm.
The anger in the transference is clear. He’s not saying “You don’t get to be bored” to the character, but to himself. Not getting, of course, that her boredom and his boredom belong to different categories. Her yearning boredom is about paralysis of limitless possibility, and the paradoxical wish, as Phillips puts it, to have a sensible desire. Louis’ boredom is the anxious boredom of the adult: he doesn’t know what to do with himself, and time is wasting away, and he fears he’s forgotten how to feel wonderment, so he demands his daughter feel it for him.
But like the best of comedians of history, Louis confesses to a hypocrisy when he flutters into autobiographical mode, and turns it into shtick. In “Live From the Beacon Theatre”, he belts out a delightful seven minutes on the boredom of parenting – how he has to read all fifty books of Clifford the Big Red Dog, and watches his daughter count the spaces on their board game with excruciating slowness. He forces her token forward as she complains “But I’m counting and learning!” He replies straight from the darkest shadow of fatherhood, where anxiety expresses its disdain for innocence: “I don’t care honey. You’re going to grow up stupid because I’m too bored to wait. I’m more bored than I love you.” The audience roars with laughter, relieved that someone has finally said it.
From Freud’s essay “Humour” (1927):
The grandeur in [comedy] clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability. The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.
I’m more bored than I love you. What can this mean? I think it means that the fear of death is indistinguishable from our present responsibilities to each other. We laugh at the line so that we can outsource the stress. The giddiness of that laughter comes from the fact that boredom shows us the inevitable challenge of loving.
Here’s the punch line that Louis, fictional or not (and we can never know the difference), speaking for the cultural unconscious, can’t afford. We have to let our children be bored, so they can explore safely the endless horizons of time, and softly confront the abyss. If we take their lead, we can also let ourselves be bored, but not with resignation or apathy. We can be comfortably bored with the endless Big Red Dog, the counting of spaces on board-games. We can know that time is passing at different rates for different ages. We could soak up a little of the sadness and openness we’ve closed off over time.
Perhaps if we get it, we can avoid the default to cruelty towards children who are reminding us of what we fear. Perhaps parent and child can share boredom as one of the more curious and restless forms of love.