Finding a Word for the New Ennui


Ah, here’s that old feeling, yet reversed in its particulars.

Do you recall that sensation from your childhood when you were so bored that nothing that you could do interested you?  It was all alike in its seeming inability to cure your boredom.  Nothing available seemed to answer that inarticulable, unfulfilled need.

A dictionary would inform the idle thumber that “ennui” implies satiety.  One is bored because one has had one’s fill of the available activities.  Presumably, asking one’s self what to do in that condition is akin to asking one’s self what to eat after a banquette, but this cannot be correct for the simple reason that one does not feel hungry after a banquette.  The hallmark of frustrated boredom is precisely the desire to do something… just not that which comes to mind to do.  If you were full, you could just relax.

Perhaps this feeling arises in youth because we are not yet ready to do the next things.  The young writer is not ready to construct a novel, not knowing where to begin, but trifles are no longer satisfying.  Toy construction kits are limited and feel false and have no purpose, no use, but the young builder is not ready to make a usable shed, even if only because he or she has not yet developed the mindset for planning.

Thus did we once find our way to the next stage.  I am tired of these toys, so what do I want to do?  What will make my childhood practices more adult?  The inarticulable, unfulfilled need was to be prepared for the next level.

Now in middle age, I find the inverse to carry a similar sensation.  We adults are full — of experiences, of memories, and most of all of obligations.  We cannot relax, however, because things must be done.  Plans must be made, details seen to, and people cared for.

What is the word for this feeling?  Once, I would have been driven from a chair outside by a felt need to do something, even if I could not think of anything to do.  Now, the pull is from an actual need to get something done.  If the first push-pull was boredom, what is the second one?  “Stress” seems too simple and broad.  Maybe “enervation,” although that implies weakening through luxury.  Maybe “attenuation,” although that suggests a physical thinning that doesn’t match this species of mental bloating.  Maybe “tumidity,” “turgidity,” or “tumescence.”

The thesaurus isn’t helping.  All of these words are not quite it.  “Overchoice”?  No.

Other languages might solve this problem by merging descriptive words.  In English we hyphenate: This is the feeling of lack-of-desire-to-do-any-of-the-multitude-of-things-that-must-be-done.

Phrased this way, the sense of lack is key.  What is this new inarticulable, unfulfilled need, then?  Maybe the feeling isn’t that far off from youthful boredom, after all.  If the younger me was bored because he was not ready to do what he really wanted to do, maybe now, I cannot do what must be done or (alternately) to relax amid my field of tedium.  I’m ready to do the next thing, but the next thing is not yet ready to be done.  It’s the feeling of spinning wheels.

These things always sound better in German, though, so I guess I’ll call it Spinnräder.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Justin, you sound a bit like what I would call “world weary”, perhaps not. Ah well, in the “language of philosophy”, macht nicht.

  • Christopher C. Reed