In Defense of Boredom
As someone who seeks diversion, hungers for excitement, and insists on turning a trip to Target into an Adventure, I can’t believe I am about to spend the next few paragraphs exploring the virtues of boredom. But I am.
I got to thinking about this over the summer when a bunch of us took our kids to Tanglewood. It was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 but you would have thought I was taking my kids to Gitmo for a night of waterboarding. I was mortified at how recalcitrant the 16 and 8 year olds were. Twenty minutes into it Bea, the 8 year old tells me it’s not fun and insists on leaving. I tell her tough luck. She then starts to retch and says, “but I’m so bored I’m going to barf!” “Then be quick and quiet about it because we are staying put.” Honestly. No one has boredom-induced nausea! We all survived but it was not pretty.
The truth is nobody likes to be bored. But I feel like we have entered an era of “Boredomphobia” where tedium is a crime and dullness a sin. Most kids have their own handheld electric buddy to keep them occupied between swim lessons and Kumon and the 15 other enrichment activities they do. And adults are no exception. The other day as I waited at the orthodontist for my daughter, I realized I had left my smart phone in the car and had no idea what I was supposed to do. There was nothing to read (other than a pamphlet on gingivitis), no solitaire to play, no news to catch up on. It took me a while but I finally just sat there and was alone with my thoughts (the HORROR!). And before Georgia emerged I had actually done a little bit of soul searching that never would have happened checking Facebook. It reminded me that it’s easy to confuse busyness with productivity and growth.
Growing up in the 70s when nobody cared if you wandered the streets till dusk and the Walkman wasn’t around till late junior high, the neighborhood kids would just find each other and eventually the boredom would somehow spark creativity. Nobody ran to their mom and said, “We’re bored, what can we do?” If we said that our moms would rope us into some kind of housework. We knew better. So we invented skateboard Olympics, choreographed dances to Donna Summer, hiked to the waterfall (ie creek trickling two feet off a small rock) and searched for rattlesnake skins. It’s easy for my kids to transform boredom into creativity with cousins at reunions, when a pack of kids with time on their hands is seen as a good thing. But it’s harder in our day-to-day life when we all feel so separate and programmed and everything feels urgent and play dates can be orchestrated down to the minute. Sometime you need to think “what now?” before you can posit that great creative leap of “what if…”
Most family cars now have DVD players in them, which is magical, I’ll admit. But it seems nutty to watch 10 minutes of a movie as you drive to school (not that we haven’t whipped out the iPad while running errands). I remember those endless drives every summer from LA to Provo. It’s a dismal 12 hour haul. My siblings and I fought and irritated one another almost to the point of madness. That whole “I’m gonna turn this car around” is no joke! Our station wagon had a radio but no cassette—not even an 8track. But a funny thing would happen somewhere around the Pear Blossom Highway. Lee, the eldest, would invent a game, spotting license plates or seeing who could find the most things that start with the letter “P” and the four of us would bond in our boredom and transforming it into fun. I have seen this happen in my own minivan when even our many anti-boredom devices no longer satisfy us. Sometimes we play a game. Sometimes we tell stories. And sometimes we are just silent. But we have to be bored first.
Here’s my bottom line. Life gets dull and we need to make it work for us. Mot of us are more interesting than we think we are; we just need a little while to get reacquainted with our thoughts. Stop seeing ennui as the enemy and stare it down. Embrace it even. If any people should have learned to harness and transform boredom it’s the Mormons. Who else has 3 hours of meeting every darn Sunday where we can practice transforming tedium into diversion and perhaps, dare I suggest, wonder?! So what I’m saying is boredom can be the gateway to creativity. Or to reflection. Or to stillness. But no matter what Bea says, it won’t make you barf.
What do you do to combat boredom? How do you embrace it? Do you think LDS are more or less prone to fear of boredom?