Yesterday, I was sitting on a train after work. Too exhausted to pull my laptop out of my bag, I wearily picked up a paper that someone else had left behind. Having read all the usual sections (i.e. the sport) I began to experience an unusual emotion: boredom. I even considered doing the crossword but as hell had not yet frozen over in desperation I started to read the obituaries.
Here my eye was caught by a picture of a striking woman, Professor Dame Louise Johnson, who was one of the leading molecular biologists of her time. She specialised in the structure and behaviour of proteins — work that is crucial in finding the causes of disease and for designing new drugs.
What struck me most was how specialised her interests were and how they seemed to capture the main themes of her life. For example along with molecular biology she had a deep interest in encouraging science in the Islamic world as well as for quoting Humphrey Davy. How wonderful it must be to have interests like this – interests that defined her life and for which she will always be remembered.
When clients come to me they have often been so worn down by life that they feel they have lost contact with their interests.
‘What interests do you have?’ I ask. ‘I don’t really have any’ comes the reply.
This is sad, but so easy to do. The business of life – or the busyness of life – can loosen our attachment to what we love.
Unless we fight for it. ACT therapists do an interesting thing with emotions and thoughts, in that they treat them as verbs rather than nouns. Rather than ‘what interests you?’, where the person passively experiences interest as a kind of cognitive state, they ask ‘what do you choose to make interesting?’
As with confidence, interest is only stoked by action. Interest in something is usually experienced cognitively after the event, not before. Being willing to pause a while, to sit with boredom if necessary, and still to move forward is the first step to rekindling our interests. Being willing to have doubt about what interests us is the very first step in interest rehab.
If we are still enough for long enough there’s a small spark or ember of interest in all of us. For some it has been neglected for years, but it is there. The question is not whether it is interesting enough, but can we pause for a while, protect it and kindle it, so that the fire returns?