October 23, 2017

The Blessings of Boredom

NOTE FROM CM: Though Damaris’ post is not about sports, it does address our culture of entertainment and “hyperstimulation” in which sports plays a part. As an example, having spent hours in the Super Bowl Village over the weekend, I can safely say it was a sensory extravaganza — all stimulation all the time. What’s more, I noticed that few showed any awareness of the pandemonium. Vanity Fair got nothin’ on us.

• • •

The Blessings of Boredom

“In an era of hyperstimulation it can be difficult for people to realize that enlightenment comes not by increasing the level of excitement, but by moving more deeply into calm. There is a kind of monotony that is not boredom but paves the way for a more profound experience.”

That quotation leaped out at me from a book called Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina, by Michael Casey. It expresses well something I’ve thought as a child, a teacher, a writer, a parent, and a Christian: Boredom is a blessing. From what we call boredom, as from dirt, great things can grow.

Not all cultures complain about boredom, or even seem to have a concept of it. I never knew anyone to complain specifically of boredom in Liberia, for example, although people would wander away from something they didn’t find interesting. After seven years in Kygyzstan, I never found a Kyrgyz word that meant “boredom.” The Kyrgyz can say something is not interesting, or that they are not interested in it – they can curl up and go to sleep in the middle of a party without self-consciousness – but their language can’t express the pervasive state of being that is modern Western boredom. Nor do I recall much description of boredom in Classical or Medieval writing.

Here and now, however, people seem to devote vast amounts of energy to fighting off boredom. According to Merriam Webster, boredom is “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.” Most people these days would take it further and define boredom as nothing stimulating to be doing right this minute. A hundred years ago teachers might define their greatest dread as an epidemic disease, or the stove-heated schoolhouse burning down; teachers today labor breathlessly to make their classes interesting, amusing, and stimulating – to prevent weariness and restlessness. Parents used to worry about their children’s health and moral growth; parents today worry about scheduling activities for every waking moment their children are not in school. Early printers were concerned to make their books accurate and blot-free; printers today cram every page with multicolored images, side-bars, fancy fonts, even scratch-and-sniff patches and motion-activated music recordings. Boredom seems to be the worst thing out there.

Sometimes our sense of boredom may be an accurate and helpful response to poor conditions. People whose lives are purposeless, lonely, uncreative, and oppressed will be bored – and they’re right to be. Boredom, like pain, is in that case the warning that something is wrong and that change is necessary. Even if these people can’t change their conditions, they are challenged to change their response to them and find purpose, work, and service within the life they are leading now.

There is a less healthy cause of boredom, though: entitlement. Or more bluntly, being spoiled. If someone believes that amusement is a right, then anything that doesn’t seem immediately amusing to him is an infringement of his right. Even though most people are never told that they have the right to be amused, they have absorbed that idea from the tensely smiling teachers surrounded by posters, mobiles, videos, toy boxes, stuffed animals, Activity Centers, manipulatives, computers – baubles and bling everywhere. They figure out that just listening to one person read the news isn’t good enough when every station competes to fit in as many scrolling headlines, captions, and insets as they can without completely obscuring the reporter. Every new device that comes out screams that it connects faster, does more, has more, is louder, brighter, more colorful, more fun – and you deserve it!

Children – or adults – who are always busy never have time to discover anything new. They rush from task to task, driven by the “wretched urgency” that Michael Spencer spoke of. If you asked them, they would complain about the urgency – “I’m always so busy, I have all these plans I don’t have time for, I wish I had time to think, to grow, etc.” – but they’ve become habituated to it. And when the urgency stops, the resulting “state of being weary and restless through lack of interest” takes over. Their jangled nerves can’t stand the quiet, and immediately they identify the strange feeling of empty time and space as boredom and hence as bad.

But what we call boredom is fertile ground for creativity. Are you old enough to have had a real summer vacation? To remember the long, hot days kicking yourself back and forth in the swing, complaining to your mother about how bored you were? And then what came next? All your youthful energy had to go somewhere. You decided to dig a hole to China, perhaps, and although you never got to China you found interesting worms and rocks and had fun filling the pit up with water from the hose and playing in the mud. You built a treehouse. You spent hours studying an anthill. Or maybe you finally got out that model plane set that you hadn’t had time for during the school year and discovered a lifelong fascination with aeronautics.

The feeling of empty time and space is the blessing of boredom, not the curse. In boredom we reach the ends of ourselves and find how limited we are. In boredom we can hear God speak and have the time and space to respond instead of burying God’s call under the avalanche of amusement we’re used to. The quotation I began with says just this: monotony paves the way for a more profound experience.

For thousands of years the great religions have had much to say about holy boredom. Monastics, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu, understand the disciplines of silence and divesting oneself of baubles and bling. The Jews and Christians, the Chinese and Mayans, the people who live close to the earth and notice the seasons, all learned to appreciate the “monotony” of the changing year. And we can, too – we can train ourselves to embrace holy boredom.

To do so we have to give up our rights, especially our right to be amused, and accept that everything comes from God’s hand.

We have to discipline ourselves to abstain from too much stimulation. We have to acknowledge that “multitasking” is a delusion and that behind all the stuff we’re racing to do is the sin of pride.

We have to habituate our shredded nerves to stillness, slowness, and calm. This means not swearing if the computer takes ten seconds instead of five to boot up and not honking if the car ahead doesn’t start up the second the light turns green. It means learning to sit in the garden without mowing or weeding at least a few times a week (a hard one for me). It means being grateful for being stuck with nothing to do from time to time.

We have to be more attentive to natural rhythms – not because nature is divine, but because nature is not us. It takes humility to accept the sameness of every year, the alternations of bounty and scarcity, without complaining or thinking we have to crank everything up to eleven.

Ironically, the people who are the least bored are not those who have the most distractions. They are the people who can be content with empty time and space. Not only are these contented people not bored, they are also not boring. Think of that.

Comments

  1. I love this, Damaris! Everything you say here is so true. “We have to discipline ourselves to abstain from too much stimulation. We have to acknowledge that ‘multitasking”’is a delusion and that behind all the stuff we’re racing to do is the sin of pride.” I wish more people understood this. I know people who will actually say they are not happy unless they are constantly stimulated, but when they cannot turn down the noise in their brain, they think the only way to get some sleep is to use alcohol. This is such a dangerous cycle to get into. If they only were able to realize the power in that “holy boredom” as you call it, they would feel calmer and more alive at the same time.

    I have found myself with a lot of free time at work and I have been filling that time with reading. But then I think, “What a gift I have been given to just sit in the silence and bask in the love and warmth of God.” Part of me sometimes feels “guilty” as I am being paid to do my job, but if I have finished all that needs to be done, then I think I should just be accepting this gift. That’s my take on it, anyway!

  2. This is all so true. I just heard an interview yesterday with an author who has written a book on introversion (http://www.npr.org/2012/01/30/145930229/quiet-please-unleashing-the-power-of-introverts) and she has pretty much come to the same conclusion. I think our world has come to believe that extroversion is the norm that we should all strive to emulate, but that, as you say, leaves no place for reflection. Sit and listen for a few minutes at any school function and you will hear the parents, and children, seemingly in an endless competition for who is the busiest. How can this be good for the kids? I don’t know how many times I’ve mentioned in conversation some tidbit of home cooking and gotten the reaction of “How in the world do you have time to cook?” as though I’m some sort of slacker,
    Churches, too, have become a breeding ground for purposeless busyness far too often and it seems the worst criticism that can be stated is that a church service was boring. God forbid! Thanks for this article.

    • “I don’t know how many times I’ve mentioned in conversation some tidbit of home cooking and gotten the reaction of ‘How in the world do you have time to cook?’ as though I’m some sort of slacker.”

      You make a good point, Suzanne. I am not much of a joiner at all and therefore, most of my free time is spent with my husband and a bit of time with my sisters and cousins. When I go once in a while to a place where a number of old friends gather and I hear about all the things they are involved in, it is not my friends who say anything about what I am not doing, but I wonder about myself and wonder if I am lazy, selfish, self-centered, boring, unfulfilled, etc. I actually DO think I am those things, but I don’t seem to be able to get myself motivated to even help out groups that look useful and interesting. Maybe it would be different if I didn’t have my husband around who is even LESS of a joiner than I am, but I don’t know. Maybe that is just an “excuse” for me.

      • I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with being a joiner or not. I do enough things, I think, but love to cook, so I do. I don’t like being perceived as a slacker because I take the time to do it.

        I do have sympathy for your point, though. When did joining everything and anything become such a badge of honor? My kids saw when they went through school; the kids that got all the accolades did everything. They maybe didn’t do it well, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was their spreadsheet full of activities, which many of them did while cheating on their homework.

  3. Randy Windborne says:

    Damaris Zehner wrote, “In boredom we can hear God speak and have the time and space to respond … .”

    That explains it – I’m bored!

    Attention forumites: The preceding post was humor. Do not take offense.

    Thank you.

  4. Demaris,

    I couldn’t agree more. I was not aware how sensory overloaded I was until I got to spend a week at seminary for a residential intensive a few weeks back.

    I started a program at Nashotah House. I went up really a day and a half early just to give myself time to get my bearings. I spent a day in solitude before classes began that week. It was alternatingly amazing, moving, maddening, and panic inducing. I really didn’t know what to do to myself.

    I went to a small chapel and just sat. It seemed like an enternity but it was literally only minutes. Each day once classes started was busy, but it was still so much more serene and so much more calm than my naturaly environment.

    My wife and kids picked me up at the airport and they wanted to go out to eat. The noise and crowd and overstimulation of the place drove me crazy. I really thought I was going to have to get up and go outside.

    Odd.

  5. This is a fantastic post. From Thomas Merton to Thoreau, many of the authors I’ve been reading lately were concerned with these same issues. Silence, slowness, solitude, and simplicity all have negative connotations in our culture. They must be reclaimed and rehabilitated.

  6. Thank you, Damaris. This needed to be said. And I think you’ve just described why God ordered up the concept of the sabbath.

    • It’s even a struggle not to be overstimulated on Sunday. We recently decided not to participate in Sunday school so that we could have more time to sit around the table and talk together.

      • Sunday is often our busiest day, and far from the sabbath “rest”. While the weather was still good this fall I found myself going for a hike instead of Sunday school. Fortunately we’ve got a national park right outside the church doorstep so I could get up on a hill and have different senses stimulated (not boring at all) and still make it in time for the 10:30 service. I recommend it at least once in a while. Or a relaxed breakfast with conversation. Your choice.

  7. one of the deadly sins was acedia (ennui)

  8. When my kids come up to me and say “I’m bored” I usually tell them I got something to fix that – work!

    Why do I say this – because when I was younger and bored that’s when my mind went into overdrive and I stepped out of my box to do something new. Whether that was building something or dreaming about how I could become something different or wandering off on an adventure (the woods) it allowed me to stretch myself.

    Like many these days I don’t find any time to be bored like I did when I was a kid. Too many other things to do or others to focus on. So… to make time… I go off on silent retreat and just be. Some would call that boredom, I would call it freeing my mind for a couple of days. Very much in agreement with what you shared here today.

  9. Here in Washington, D.C. I’ve met a number of people who have left states such as South Dakota, Minnesota, Oklahoma, etc… and tell me how bored they were there. I tell them in return how much I miss Montana and would return in a heartbeat and then some of these type A personaliites are like, “Why? What’s there? You know how long it took me to leave South Dakota? The culture and the small population were killing me!! Why would you want to move to a small boring place like that?”

    Oh Montana…will you be in my future again? (sigh…)

  10. At 76 yrs young I’m pretty much retired. I still “work” [ it’s not really work if you enjoy it] one day a week.I know my time on this earth is limited, but still if I want to sit and do nothing but let my mind wander thats fine. My mind brings up songs, past experiences, verses from the Bible and other books I have read. I can’t remember the last time I was bored.

  11. Being on retreat two weeks ago reminded me of the need for silence…physically and in my mind and heart!

    Only in quiet and “boredom” can I listen to the Lord instead of talking TO Him. It concerns me that children seem to have lost the abiltiy to “go outside and play”…that is where REAL learning takes place.

    • I agree that children need to go outside and play. Back when I was homeschooling my children, I was always amazed by the lesson plans that directed children’s “play” to reinforce a lesson. In my experience, if children were given time and space to play (and forbidden to watch tv), they would do it without it being scripted. I didn’t have to tell the kids, “When we’re done with your history lesson I’ll show you how to play pioneers;” they were out the door in their “bonnets” and long skirts before I’d closed the book.

      I despised “Barney” for many reasons, but the chief one was probably the song: “Barney shows us lots of things, like how to play pretend.” Children have to watch an adult, in a dress-up dinosaur suit, on tv, in order to learn how to play pretend? Pooh.

      • About 8 or 9 years ago, I was the librarian for the school where I now teach English, and I encountered a class of pre-K students who literally didn’t know how to play. I had toys for them in the library — puzzles, toys to build with, some of those simple foam blocks with the cut-out shapes in the middle and the interlocking edges — and they didn’t know what to do with them. It took these four-year-olds two weeks to figure out that the cut-out shapes went in the middle and another two weeks to figure out that they could join the blocks and build with them. They would just stack them up, pick them up over their heads, and drop them like an 18-month-old. Once they got the hang of building, they loved these toys, but it took them literally the first month of school to figure it out. I’d never seen a class like that before.

    • I’ve told my kids off to the side that the best way to avoid getting pulled into additional projects (aside from chores) is to go out and play. When I was young I was in a patch of woods by my house every waking moment I could be and in the summer, once my chores were done my folks only saw me briefly for supper before I was out the door again. There’s nothing like using the imagination, or the chance to explore, or a chance to build a tree fort out of wood found here and there, or frisbee or army or a pick up game of baseball/kickball/release…..

      That’s why the movie “Stand by Me” really resonated…

  12. Prodigal Daughter says:

    I’m reading Kathleen Norris’ book on Acedia. It’s very good and touches greatly on what you’ve written here, Damaris.

    • Kathleen Norris’ book on Acedia is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10 years. I scour every used book store I encounter for copies to give to friends. Highly, highly, highly recommend it.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, both of you. I’ll look for it.

    • Prodigal Daughter says:

      Damaris & Suzanne, you can purchase it on Amazon for Kindle. I know the paperbacks are hard to come by.

  13. Well written, Damaris, thank you. I only wish more churches, including mine, would learn the concept that less is more. Our sabbath day has turned into just another item on our to-do list.

  14. petrushka1611 says:

    Lin Yutang’s book, The Importance of Living, has wonderful things to say about boredom’s cousin, idleness. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but one thing that stuck out was that taking one hour to laze about and let your mind wander, can often give you space to think of solutions to problems. Better to spend one hour musing than ten spinning your wheels. This is one of the reasons I smoke a pipe: my life is crazy…I’m a freelance classical musician. The act of smoking slows everything down for about 40 blessed minutes.

  15. Bertrand Russell won’t ever get a lot of love here at IM, for obvious reasons, but he was spot-on when he opined that children need “a fruitful boredom” to develop the inner resources he himself obviously treasured over the course of his nearly century of life as an intellectual.

  16. My children have learned (mostly) not to complain of boredom around me. If they do, I inform them of the truth of the matter.

    “The problem is not that you are bored. The problem is that you are boring.”

    At first they took great offense to this. I explain that they are bored because they have not cultivated an interior life sufficiently rich so that one is able to recognize that the world contains more fascinations than one could ever have time to enjoy. Interesting people find interest in most anything toward which they direct their energies. Become an interesting person and you will never be bored.

    I think it is starting to sink in.

  17. Excellent article Damaris.