The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.
Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship….
This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both….
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate [the] horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will…. The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done.
These are words of truth uttered by a demon. Well, let me clarify, a fictional devil named Screwtape created by the indispensable C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). This excerpt is from Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in which he takes us through the veil of spiritual warfare, from the perspective of Hell. It is as jarring as it is profound. Over the past several months we have been reading selections from this work to understand the diabolic methods by which Satan and his minions work to destroy our intimacy and passion for God’s truth and love in the daily. Within the excerpt above we learn how the devils encourage boredom and novelty as a means of driving us towards spiritual restlessness and rot.
THE VALLEY OF BLAH & THE STATE OF “I-CAN’T-WAIT-ISM”
Lewis points out that one way the Adversary works his dark magic is to perpetuate in our souls a dissatisfaction with the seeming mundanity and repetitiveness of life. He makes us swallow the lie that life is only truly lived in light of perpetual novelty. Quite often, without even physically saying, “Is this all there is?” we begin to live out loud this sentiment by having less and less purpose and joy in the everyday activities that consume most of our existence. This could be in our work, cooking, cleaning, parenting, fellowshipping, church-going, or spiritual disciplines. We can begin to see these things as weights keeping us from “truly living.” One way we, therefore, try and overcome them is to overshadow them with novelty.
We tend to become creatures who worship novelty. We extol the bright, shiny, and perhaps even edgy or bawdy as “true living” while we balk at the regular or old as enslaving or passé. Who likes vanilla anyways as opposed to the thousand and one other flavors able to titillate the taste buds? Through the novel, we believe we can ascend from the Valley of Blah to the Mountains of True Satisfaction. So, we take up some new activities (social outing, parties, classes, services) or new gadgets (iPhone, computer, gaming system, car), or new amusement (social media, movies, video games, sports) in the hopes it will ignite into reality our deepest fantasies and desires at the expense of the black-and-white malaise of “Real Life.”
Let me make this flesh and bone for a moment.
Consider seasons for example. Very often we are a people who are never pleased with the season we are in. When we are in the Summertime, we speak of yearning for Fall and Winter (“I can’t wait for sweater weather & pumpkin spice!”), and yet when we are in Fall or Winter we wistfully dream of Summer (“I can’t wait for pool weather and cookouts!”). When we are in Thanksgiving Season we shop for Christmas and when we are at Christmas we prepare for Valentine's. It seems that while we are living in the moment we longed for we are never pleased. What does this say about us?
Or consider how we do our entertainment. We tend to obsess over upcoming or new releases. We exclaim, “I can’t wait until they release X!” or “That is the greatest Y ever!” (insert movie, song, game, gadget…etc.). Our commercial and trailer culture only perpetuates this behavior in us. Funny thing is, the release comes, we consume it (or even binge it) and it is awesome…until it’s not. We will then repeat the cycle when the new stream of trailers releases to ignite our curiosities.
Or even consider our jobs and careers. We tend to skip from one venue to the next, rarely enjoying where we are at even when we chose it at the expense of previous preferences. Rapidly the new environment and colleagues become old, showing their warts and “true selves,” and we thus begin seeking yet another venue in which to win our bread and butter. Even amid our careers, in the monotony of daily loads, we exclaim the desire for the novel: “I can’t wait to get out of this place,” or “I can’t wait for the weekend,” or “I can’t wait for a vacation,” or “I can’t wait for retirement.” Again, we seem to be unpleased with being pleased.
In all these examples we are living in a state of “I-can’t-wait-ism” which lays within the quest for novelty. It is a state we live in as we go through the Valley of Blah (which is just another name for regular everyday living). We seem to be incapable of ever really being at rest in the things we do, even when we are doing the things we wanted to do in the first place.
The great malady in all this is the fact that all the gadgets, activities, new venues, and amusements we ingest tend to have a lesser and lesser appeal the longer we plod upon this narrow globe. What is happening is we are succumbing to what Lewis called “the law of diminishing returns.” The allurement of “the new” quickly devolves into the “blah” as we oscillate from moments of emotional high and low which are shackled to the contingencies of events and people. As a result of all this, what do we do? We keep repeating. We are like gerbils on a ceaseless wheel of filling our lives with more and more activities, gadgets, and amusements in the hopes they will bring us out of “blah” only to find that they lead us to “blah” which in turn makes us seek even further amusements.
OUR RELENTLESS QUEST TO BE RESTLESS
We post-modern westerners are especially susceptible to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Consider for example our accessibility to movies and entertainment (something I enjoy and therefore have thought about personally in my life). In 1950 there were less than 100 television channels, today there are close to 2,000. In 1990 there were no streaming video services, today there are about 200 with over 70,000 movies and shows just on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. On Steam (a video game digital distribution service) in 2008 there were around 200 games available, today there are over 10,000. Around 1990 there were around 150 video games released annually, today there are close to 6,000. However, amid this tsunami of amusement available to us we have less and less sustainable wonder and joy in our consuming. We mindlessly search for "something to watch" only to say "nothing is on." Or we flip something on in the background, not caring about what it is, while we flip through our phones to find one bout of idiocy after another on Tiktok. What does all this say about us as a people? Have you not experienced the feeling that movies and the games and the shows “aren’t what they used to be”? Why do we tend to think this? And yet this sentiment seems somewhat pervasive as we seem less and less able to sustain excitement or interest in new releases. Is our more somehow becoming less to us? Is it any wonder we are obsessed with retro things (from Dunkaroos to windbreakers to 2D gaming) and seeking to grasp at the wonder and joys we experienced as kids? There is a post waiting to be written just on this topic, but I digress.
I will not give more stats nor belabor the point for fear we will go off focus but suffice to say enough ink has been spilled in the world of philosophy and psychology to show us that we post-moderns seem to be suffering from a strange malady of “boredom” that did not really exist in previous generations. Think on that for but a moment. How quickly do you end up saying, “I am bored,” in-between one pursuit and another? How quick are you to need some activity or sound to tantalize your senses so you feel fulfilled or don’t have to think? Again, in asking these questions, I cannot but be reminded of when the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) remarked,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Why is this? Well, a full-orbed discussion will go beyond the confines of this post but suffice to say that one central element at play is our loss of purpose and meaning in life. We have little peace or contentment in our hearts and minds because we do not really have a sense of who we are, what we are to do, and how we are to live. Part of all this lies in what great thinkers through the centuries have coined “human restlessness,” which is this inability to find a sense of peace and security in our souls. As a result, we fill our lives with novelties, noise, and nonsense in the hopes they will stimulate our indifference to life. But they don’t, they just aggravate it. Pascal piercingly revealed this problem rising in his day (which is unduly exacerbated in our own time) saying,
[People] think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.
They have a secret instinct driving them to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of their constant sense of wretchedness. They have another secret instinct, left over from the greatness of our original nature, telling them that the only true happiness lies in rest and not in excitement. These two contrary instincts give rise to a confused plan buried out of sight in the depths of their soul, which leads them to seek rest by way of activity and always to imagine that the satisfaction they miss will come to them once they overcome certain obvious difficulties and can open the door to welcome rest.
All our live passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.
We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.
Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.
How raw and in your face. We are a people, Pascal says, that never rest and in fact despise rest – and by rest Pascal is speaking not of sleep but a serenity of spirit and a capacity to soak in silence and peace. Why do we do this? Pascal asserts it is because we hate to think of “our wretchedness.” In other words, we hate to come face to face with ourselves or our situations, so we cover up the mirror of our souls with a million little mice to divert deep reflection. But again, these diversions only satiate but for a time, until we are resolved to find further venues of contentment, which in turn do not fulfill. It’s the gerbil on the wheel. Ad infinitum.
OUT OF THE CYCLE OF PERPETUAL NOVELTY
Once again, let me do an addendum before I close this post. There is nothing in what is said here that asserts it is somehow inherently wrong to desire taking up a new activity or a trendy gadget or to enjoy a new amusement. To walk away with such a notion is to miss the point entirely. The goal is to get us to stop for once and think about what we consume, what we desire, and how we are viewing our lives; it is to draw us towards reflecting on where we perch our real contentment and joy.
That said, we need a way forward through the Valley of Blah. As always, I do not presume to give be-all-end-all solutions to addressing our maladies, but I think part of the way out of the Valley is to come to terms with the fact that the valley is itself a place where joy and satisfaction can be found. In short, we need to see the Valley of Blah with fresh eyes. Part of the release from the seeming monotony of the every day is to see that monotony as part of the cadence of human existence – there is monotony in novelty and there is a novelty in the monotony. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes put it much better than I can. He wrote it like this:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And yet after saying all of this he goes on to say by chapter 3,
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
There is so much goodness in these passages, but time fails me to do full exegesis. Suffice to say, life is a dance of permanence and change and change becoming permanence. Lewis called this “Rhythm,” that union of difference and durability which is at the heart of our existence as created beings. When we come to see what the function of “toil” and “business” and “everyday life” is – that it has the heartbeat of eternity – we come to be freed from feeling enslaved in it. Our enslavement comes from our inadequate view of what life should be instead of coming to see it as it is. Nothing lasts and everything that comes is really just a rehashing. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” This is life.
We have got to get to the place that we embed within our philosophy of life the truth that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” as the Preacher said. The doing good, the eating, the drinking, and yes, even the toil, is “beautiful in its time” and is “a gift from God.” How could this be? The every day and the seemingly mundane, as well as the experiences of the novel, all have the embers of eternity in them. They are not eternity but they reveal it to us. Through them, they show us what it means to be a creature, what it means to need to find the Ultimate Rest for our restless souls that are found not in them, but perhaps, however faintly, through them in God Himself.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes and a whole lot of great thinkers and sages through the ages have told us the same message: Stop thinking your happiness and satisfaction rests in the novel. It doesn’t. It can’t. That which is new becomes old and that which is old repeats itself. This is your life. To crave infinite newness to satiate your restless soul is to remain infantile in your perspective on life; it is to be stunted into a pubescent soul that is enslaved to people and things. Find your rest in the One in Whom there is no change and there you find true living amid the ordinary.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/how-many-movies-on-netflix; https://www.diffen.com/difference/Hulu_vs_Netflix#:~:text=Hulu's%20original%20series.-,Size,shows%2C%20and%20over%202%2C500%20films; https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-prime-video#:~:text=The%20streaming%20service%20has%20roughly,channels%20with%20Prime%20Video%20Channels.
 Consider some philosophical reflection on the concept of “boredom” by Wendell O’Brien, Boredom, A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/boredom/. Also consider these scientific studies on boredom: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201703/bored-in-the-usa; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/social-distancing-boredom-covid-19-public-health-pandemic; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191119123750.htm;
 I cannot find the exact source for this but I believe it is in his Pensées
 I would suggest considering some of these great thinkers who have discussed human restlessness: Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 1 in particular; Blaise Pascal, Pensées, particularly section “VIII. Diversion;” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part II, Chapter XIII and Volume II, Part III, Chapter XVI. Also consider a discussion on this topic in Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). I would also recommend: Peter Busch’s article “Modern Restlessness, from Hobbes to Augustine” from Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (www.mdpi.com/journal/religions)
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1995), pg. 40
 Consider the previous post I did called The Gentle Slope of Relentless Noise, (https://www.faithunderstood.com/articles/the-gentle-slope-of-relentless-noise)
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.