Volume 5 Number 2
by Robert C. Dykstra
In informal conversation following an address to a group of young Anglican clergy just months before his death in 1971, British child psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott was asked for guidance in distinguishing troubled parishioners who could be helped by pastoral conversation alone from those who needed to be referred to a psychiatrist for assistance. Winnicott later told a colleague “that he had been taken aback by the awesome simplicity” of this question, and that after pausing for a long while he had responded to the ministers by saying, “If a person comes and talks to you and, listening to him, you feel he is boring you, then he is sick and needs psychiatric treatment. But if he sustains your interest, no matter how grave his distress or conflict, then you can help him alright.”1 Being boring, Winnicott determined, signified emotional distress severe enough to warrant further intervention.
Beyond its benefit for pastoral counseling, Winnicott’s insight concerning the diagnostic value of boredom may prove equally on the mark for those of us who preach, although with a distinctive turn. In preaching, the roles sometimes become reversed, with preachers less in the position of the counselor than of the counselee, of the one experienced as boring. If it is too often the case today that those who hear sermons find them less than interesting, would it not be conceivable, given Winnicott’s criterion for relative psychological health, that such sermons reflect a certain severity of emotional or spiritual discord in those who preach?
Masud Khan, the colleague whom Winnicott later told of the clergy’s concern, suggests that Winnicott’s response makes explicit near the end of his life a thematic thread that actually spans many earlier decades of his writings.2 In tracing this thread, however, Khan points out that Winnicott sharply distinguishes between a person who is boring and one who is bored. To bore others, as Winnicott’s response to the clergy makes clear, is to betray an intensity of psychological distress, whereas to be bored is instead an ordinary, even necessary and oddly desirable, part of everyday life. For Winnicott, a young child’s capacity to be bored—closely linked to the child’s capacity to play contentedly alone while in the benign presence of a parent, or what Winnicott called the capacity to be alone—reflects a welcome developmental achievement and a sign of psychological health. Indeed, the capacity to be bored may serve as something of an antidote to the emotional terror hidden in the act of being boring. Put differently, preachers whose sermons are found to be boring may well be those very preachers, often through circumstances beyond their choosing, sadly incapable of being bored.
Child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips explains: “Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated…. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize.” Caretakers err in rushing to alleviate rather than simply acknowledging a child’s boredom; a “premature flight from uncertainty” circumvents the negotiation of hope and condemns the child to a life that “must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting.”3
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary