We prefer to avoid boredom But what if it contains a lesson we need for a happy life?
When I was a teenager I worked on a pumpkin farm. The older farmers, who had inherited the land from their father, were content to while away hours at a time sitting in the shade of the barn, silently watching the clouded sky slide across the furrowed fields. They were at peace with dullness, but in the sweltering heat of the Mississippi floodplain I became fidgety. So fidgety, in fact, that I would look for any little job, any task at all, that I could do to fill the time.
Over the next two summers, I learned from those quiet men who had spent a lifetime adapting to the slow, inexorable rhythms of the earth. I know it sounds funny to phrase it this way, but ever since then, all of my adult life, I’ve purposely sought out moments of boredom. I stand still and look at the sky for a minute, or sit with a cup of coffee on the porch in the morning. I’ll wait in the checkout line at the store, phone safely tucked in my pocket, and simply pay attention to what’s happening around me, the dull business of everyday life, a child crying, the small talk of the cashiers, the single guy buying frozen pizzas, all of it punctuated by the beeping of the cash register. Sometimes I find great beauty in these moments. Sometimes I feel a spiritual ache.
It has been my experience that boredom is often exactly that – boring. There are no great epiphanies that automatically arrive with it. I think of boredom more like a symptom of illness. It’s a sign that my life is too comfortable, that I’ve stopped struggling to pay attention and live every moment to the fullest. Instead, I’ve given into complacency. In this sense, boredom is an early-warning system, telling us to renew our inner life, to put in more effort, to not settle for mediocrity. In this sense, it’s very important to be bored.
It seems to me that boredom is a luxury of the modern era. In less technologically advanced times, humanity was busy trying to survive, hunting and being hunted, gathering firewood, and building shelters. Boredom was less of an issue. Our boredom is a byproduct of our disconnection from the world around us. We no longer take pleasure in hearing a bird sing and feeling the satisfaction of taking a deep breath.
I recently read The Pale King, an unfinished novel by David Foster Wallace. The whole novel is about boredom. Specifically, it’s about the inner workings of the IRS, which is the most boring topic he could think of (I’ve been assured by parishioners that accounting is actually quite fun, but color me skeptical). Surprisingly, I find the novel captivating.
In the foreword, Wallace writes, “Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there … This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.” He believes that this drive to avoid boredom keeps us from doing the real work of understanding why life can be so bittersweet, the way in which it is full of both joy and sadness. To be a human being encompasses both. Refusing to be bored is an attempt to avoid the sadness, but in the end, the avoidance also means we lose the joy because we end up seeking out shallow diversions and meaningless distraction. To live deeply, we must accept all that life sends our way, refusing nothing, the good and the bad, the exciting and the boring.
There are many articles out there about how we ought to let our children be bored. It increases creativity, self-control, and the development of identity. I believe this is as true for adults as it is for children. Boredom is not a state of mind that we actively seek out, but maybe we should, at least in small doses. It may turn out that what is revealed to us in these moments is much larger, much more vast than we ever would have guessed.