Apathy and Boredom in The Trotsky

Posted: October 13, 2010

On an airplane ride recently (Toronto to Regina), I was able to squeeze in a movie called The Trotsky (2009). I’d seen a trailer of it once, but never saw it in the theatre, so I was glad that I had a chance to see it. Filmed in Montreal (including some scenes from my alma mater, McGill University) by local writer/director Jacob Tierney, this comedy sketches out the aspirations of a young Jewish high schooler, Leon Bronstein. The 17 year old is convinced that he is a reincarnation of Leon Trotsky (one of the leaders of the Russian October Revolution and friend of Vladimir Lenin) and so has his life all planned out in accord with Trosky’s own life-track (including things like marrying a woman 9 years older than him named Alexandra and finding his contemporary version of Vladimir Lenin). More specifically, the movie focuses in on his desire to create a student “union” to resist the “fascism” emanating from the school’s principal and detention hall monitor.

The movie was a lot of fun and sprinkled throughout with lots of effective little ironies. For example, Leon’s nemesis, the fascist principal played by Colm Feore, in one scene passes by a poster of Vladimir Lenin, revealing a striking similarity of looks between he and the Russian revolutionary. And whether or not the movie actually was a not-so subtle apologetic for the superiority of communist ideals is overridden by the irony of trying to make such a case in the post-communist era in which we live!

Central to the movie’s portrayal was Leon’s frustrated attempts to motivate his fellow students to follow the cause of making their student union more than just an organization that puts on school dances. But as Leon struggled to convince his classmates of the need to “unionize,” he was faced with the question of whether these students were apathetic, or simply bored. This revelation comes to Leon as he sat in a history class where he was the only one engaging the teacher, when the teacher, in frustration, asks his class whether they are “apathetic” or “just plain bored.”

The distinction between apathy and boredom, of course, is a significant one. Apathy means that someone just doesn’t care. Boredom, on the other hand, may mean that someone is simply unaware of something significant to care about. In the end, Leon (and his small group of reluctant disciples) learn that their classmates are less apathetic than that they are simply unaware of something to care about–and therefore bored. This comes clear to Leon especially when he and his cohort successfully organize a “walk-out” of the whole school from class, only to discover that the students quickly become “bored” and end up trying to find something to entertain themselves rather than caring about the cause itself.

This led me to wonder: Is a problem in North American evangelical faith that we struggle more with boredom than with apathy? I have heard plenty of sermons over the years on the dangers of sliding into a lackadaisical Laodicean apathy. But perhaps apathy is not the problem as much as we simply don’t know what to care about. We have been told through a bazillion formats and media that we should care about this or that cause, but because these appeals come to us often without context and isolated from a network of people that we implicitly trust, we actually end up feeling bored with all the appeals and all the information.

It isn’t, I think, that we don’t care. I think most of us do care deeply about matters of faith and we do care that those matters are to be worked out in our context in some way. The problem is that we are so inundated with “de-contextualized information” that is all starts to sound little more than “background noise.” It is a little like the experience I had as I sat in the airport for 5 hours last week with a television monitor only 15 feet away. It is obviously assumed that most passengers sit only an hour or so, because after about the third or fourth 1/2 hour-long loop of combined news and “info-mercials,” such” information” became not only annoying, but strictly speaking, extremely boring. Though some of the “information” being conveyed was in fact about things that I actually care about, the tumult of information became so boring that I was tempted really to feel as if I didn’t care.

And so, the question that The Trotsky raised for me is not, “How do we combat apathy?” but “How do we help people to see through to the things that they really care about when we have become bored of the constant attempts to entertain us?”