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?

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7 Responses

  1. jks says:

    I agree. I thought it would be sad if our car had a dvd player. Kids should have the chance to be bored in the car and have to stare out the window and think their own thoughts.

  2. heidikins says:

    I’m sure this wasn’t the case when I was a kid, but I don’t remember being bored as an adult. With or without my phone, or a laptop, or a book, or whatever. It seems that boredom is somehow a dirty word, and it can be, but it’s the same thing as “being alone with your thoughts” just the former has this negative connotation and the latter is more akin to “meditation.” But ultimately, they are the same thing, you just have to train yourself to see an opportunity for thinking instead of 15 minutes (or 5 hours, or whatever) of I’m So Bored!!!1!

    Maybe I’m not remembering correctly, but even on a long drive by myself with no music in the car (long story), I’m still okay. I’m also pretty introverted at times, and totally comfortable with quiet.


  3. Suzette says:

    Alone with my thoughts …. yes, it can be scary. But I agree, there is power in stillness. And in letting thoughts just be thoughts.

    I try to embrace it. And I think I do a pretty good job.

    Mormonism is a culture of works – or better said: work, work work. That is not always a bad thing, but I think we should balance that by talking about meditation and quiet prayer and thinking.

    I do my best to fight the good fight in my Primary where I am the Sharing Time Leader. I teach the kids to meditate: sit in stillness and feel with their hearts for the Holy Spirit. We practice a lot. And the kids are getting pretty good. At this moment, the entire Primary (all 30 of them, including Sunbeams) can sit in perfect silence for TWO MINUTES. (They think of it as a competition, so that helps, but I do hope they remember this lesson as they grow older.)

  4. Em says:

    I will say that boredom has produced marvelous memories for my family in sacrament meeting. I continue to appall people with all the games we used to play in our pew. Here are a few of them:
    – If you HAD to eat a member of the Bishopric who would it be and why?
    – Cast the broadway musical (choose a specific one) from the members of the congregation
    -Come up with as many Lord of the Rings metaphors that could be used in Sacrament Meeting talks as possible.
    -Think of as many puns on the sound pea as possible, then draw little peas on the program (whirled peas, peas on earth good will to men, a peer (pea-r) of the realm etc.) to illustrate

    Bored in church? I don’t think so!

  5. Rachel says:

    Heather, this resonated with me so much. Many of my very favorite memories of my family spring from the road trips we would take every year from my home in Oregon to my maternal grandma in LA, my paternal grandparents on the other side of Oregon, and my cousins in Utah. We played alphabet road sign games, fairly morbid games about how people died, listened to my dad tell stories about his childhood, and sang and sang. I also threw up on almost every road trip from motion sickness, and there was a fair amount of “Stop touching me!” but those are somehow not the parts I think of.

    All of my siblings have dvd players in their car, either attached or portable, so I have thought about how their children’s road trip experiences now are wildly different than their parents, and than my own. This isn’t necessarily bad different, but I do I think that boredom is like silence, and like white space. It is where inspiration can enter.

    p.s. Please tell me that was your family car, because our road trips happened in one much like it. In 7th grade I was so proud when we got a minivan, because it was “cool” compared to our wagon.

  6. Caroline says:

    Love this post, Heather. Couldn’t agree more.

    ” If any people should have learned to harness and transform boredom it’s the Mormons.” Ha!!

  7. Jenny says:

    Please take a moment and check out this blog also.
    Interesting point of view for sure.

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