Burned Out on Splendour


Angkor sunrise

It's so pretty! Now where can I buy some soup?

We had been at Angkor Wat since sunrise. Bobby and I had seen light and clouds pour over the ancient structure, illuminating the landscape, soundtracked only to the natural chorus of birdsong. It was now 4 p.m., and we had eaten two meals in the shadow of centuries of history, walked amidst great carved stone faces, touched slabs of rock placed there hundreds of years before. It was beautiful, and stunning.

Also, it was hot, and we were out of water, and we had been walking and sight-seeing for nearly 12 hours. Neither of us wanted to say aloud that we were now kind of bored.

Because what a horrible thing to experience, to be actively bored in one of the most amazing places on the planet. To be faced with a monument to human ingenuity and planning and imagination (also, one imagines, slave labour) and eventually respond with a listless, breezy, “Meh.” What did this say about us? How spoiled and degenerate, how dull and low-attention and first-world were we that we couldn’t keep up interest after half a day?

We called the experience “templed out.” We had seen so many temples, including the really important one, and had explored every nook and cranny and crevice and wedge. I had hundreds of photographs, we had dozens of memories, and we had seen with our own eyeballs the sights that had been burned into our cultural awareness for as long as we knew Cambodia existed. And we had been doing so continuously for 12 hours, and it was getting kind of tedious.

It is weird how quickly our brains adapt to experience, how quickly we acclimate to what is going on around us. It is a matter of helping us process information, to block out useless data: if we’re experiencing something continuously, we might as well stop noticing it’s happening and think about something else. I can feel sitting for the first moment or two, but after a while my brain gets bored of noticing me sitting, and goes on to more pressing issues.

I think, in the same way, we can experience a similar, grander-scale when we’re travelling. If you overload on too much of one thing, no matter how objectively important or awesome of beautiful or heart-rending it may be, it can grow tiresome. Your reserves of being amazed, or wowed, or sad only go so deep, and after a while your body turns off the tap as a fail-safe to conserve emotional resources. If you’re being amazed continuously, your brain just kind of assumes it’ll probably keep happening, and decides to cut-off noticing and move on to maybe what you’ll eat for dinner.

It was 2009, and we travelled directly from London to Paris, which made perfect sense to us historically. It also meant that we could enter an obscene number of museums and art galleries and basically experience a huge swath of European history and art in one fell swoop: we could compress several centuries of the past into a few short days! We set off through the British Library, the British Museum, the Louvre… I saw some of the greatest works of literature and art, some of the most important artefacts of human history, and experienced collections of the totality of human culture and experience.

I See London, I See France

Oh, look. It's another important thing.

But after a few days, my tolerance was starting to dip. Where previously I had walked through some of the art museums for 7 or 8 hours with peppy resilience, now I was beginning to tire after just a few. My back ached from standing with a hand pensively propped below my chin all the time. The paintings were still magnificent, of course, but it was the of course that was the problem. Of course the history was amazing. Of course the artworks were stunning and important. Of course that thing was wrenched from the very bowels of time just for me and those around me to behold. But my feet kind of hurt, and I could really go for a sandwich. Isn’t there a gift shop or a hotdog salesperson lingering around somewhere?

With time, you just sort of grow accustomed to glory. You see so many amazing things in sequence, and after a while, your brain comes to expect it. It becomes commonplace, the baseline of your ongoing experience. Whatever spectacular sight you are currently intaking becomes your basement for awe, the 0 point which must be surpassed if your body is going to bother getting all excited again. If the amazing things you see afterwards only match what you have just ogled in magnificence, it’s difficult for your enthusiasm to keep up the pace.

While driving across Canada with my cousins, I kept a chart in my notepad about the numbers of times we engaged in a group-wide “whoo” holler. It was a big trip for us, and thus our shouting was measurable in frequency and intensity, and it was elicited by every great vista that Ontario provided us with on that first day. We saw rivers and lakes as we zigzagged around our home, we saw trees and great wide expanses of land and sky, we saw mountains and water and we saw Canada.

But by the second day, while all of the vistas were no less vistay, they were no more. They were exactly equal amounts of vista. Our whoo count plummeted from the first day, and would not recover fully until we had settled for a few days in one town before setting off once more. It wasn’t that Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. were not stunning spreads of majesty, but we had already been staring at majesty for going on 16 hours, and suddenly it was just more interesting to work on our iPod playlists.

What helped, if anything, was settling down in Shannon’s quiet mountain burg of Revelstoke. Things were pretty there, certainly, but they were also quiet, and easygoing, and the majesty didn’t keep changing. Mundanity clawed our expectations back down to regular levels, so that when we left, suddenly the world around us was once again beautiful and inspiring, so that the scenery again became worthy of our childish glee and excitement.

The lesson, then, is that you can’t mainline majesty–you can’t let yourself burn out on splendour. When you travel, you have to mix things up: if you pack your schedule too full of things of equal awesomeness, after a while the equal becomes the problem. You have to pace yourself, you have to do some boring things in between the exciting, or else the exciting becomes your boring.

Lake Louise

Hooray! It's impressive again!

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11 thoughts on “Burned Out on Splendour

  1. Michael, I can’t wait to continue my “looking bored in front of incredible things” series this May.

    We should probably schedule an afternoon of watching The Big Bang Theory re-runs and discussing the weather.

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