Longing for Boredom

Philip Berne - Jun 24, 2010
Longing for Boredom

Working as a High School teacher in a Charter school, my job wasn’t simply to teach and follow the curriculum. I was also a student advisor for a group of kids. It’s sort of like a guidance counselor role. I help them get along with each other, and with other teachers. I would help them get psyched about going to college, then help them through the application process. We had guidance counselors, but they were really more like social workers and psychologists. I gave advice, and filled the more traditional guidance counselor role.

Eventually, teaching teenagers, the topic of drugs was bound to come up. I don’t do drugs and I would never encourage teenagers to do drugs, but if I attacked teenagers with a “Say No to Drugs” message, without any real logic behind it, I would have instantly failed. I needed to explain to my students in a way they could understand and relate, why drugs are a bad choice for them.

I came across a mantra that worked best for me. I’m not sure it stopped some of the obvious drug users in my class from using, but I am sure that it discouraged some students from trying drugs.

Drugs make you accept being bored. In fact, drugs make boring times fun. That’s a dangerous problem, especially for teenagers and their growing, learning minds. I told my students that they needed boredom. Boredom is what drove them to try something truly interesting and engaging. Necessity is not the mother of invention. Boredom is.

Boredom is what drives a Harvard kid to spend his nights and weekends creating a social network. Boredom is what pushes artists to stop listening to music and start creating their own. Boredom gets you out of the house on a Friday night to socialize with friends and find something to do, or do nothing together.

By the time you read this, I will have already spent hours in a line in an upscale suburban mall waiting for the next big thing. It’s my job. I’ve done it three other times, and I can tell you now, as I’m thinking about Thursday morning, that I will definitely not be bored.

I’ll have my iPad on me. It’s got games, movies, music, books. It has apps that are unclassifiable, except perhaps as interactive art, but they do help deal with boredom. I’ll also have Internet access if I’m close enough to a Wi-Fi hotspot, and if I’m not, I have at least two phones that can generate their own hotspot. I will get some work done. I will be productive. I will have a good time, even. But I won’t be bored.

It’s hard to find a situation where I might get bored. On a seven hour flight across country, I have more than enough gadgets and media and battery power to keep myself entertained. On long car rides, I tend to be the driver, which I’ve always enjoyed, but even so, there are audiobooks and music for me, movies and games for my passengers.

When my toddler son gets tired of his toys (and we don’t have an overwhelming number of toys), we can pass him an iPod touch and he’s happy for a half hour. I haven’t let him see my iPad yet. I’m saving that for an emergency, when we need to keep him engaged for an hour or more.

When I’ve been bored at my job, I worked harder to find something more interesting and exciting to do. I worked retail jobs in college, and to avoid retail I started tutoring students for their school work and the SAT. Tutoring is much more intellectually stimulating than retail work. If you’re bored at your job, don’t just accept it. Don’t try to make the time go by as painlessly as possible. Embrace the boredom, then work hard to change it and find a more interesting way to spend your time.

Maybe we need to make a pilgrimage back to boredom. Boredom gives you time to think, which can be a great use of time. But I already have time set aside for pondering the large issues I face, and in between, I try to keep the boredom at bay. I think we should return to boredom because it’s so horrible.

There’s an old parable that says “If you want to forget all your troubles, put on a shoe that’s too tight.” Boredom makes us appreciate the exciting times in our lives even more. We work so hard to avoid being bored on a long trip, then exclaim that half the fun is getting there. Maybe that’s silly. Maybe we’re robbing “there” of a good portion of its fun, because we’ve been stimulating ourselves the whole way.

More importantly, though, boredom is horrifying. Boredom reminds us of the terminal nature of our existence. As the seconds tick by slower, all you can do is contemplate the passage of time, which often leads us to confront our own mortality. Boredom can lead us to our darkest thoughts. This isn’t just time to ourselves, this is time with nothing but ourselves, and we all hide some scary, confused or unpredictable thinking deep down. Boredom forces us to confront these facets of our being.

Then we reject it. Carrying around a heap of gadgets is not the best way to avoid boredom. It’s the worst way. It’s simply postponing the inevitable. All of my toys, my media and my most productive gadgets, when used to defeat the long, slow crawl of boredom, these things don’t replace the boredom itself. They just make me okay with being bored.

My first year waiting in line for the next big thing, I was woefully unprepared. I had no iPhone, obviously, and my smartphone, a Palm Treo, was not very fun. I had a laptop, but nowhere to charge it, so it was dead after a few hours. I didn’t even have a comfortable seat, just an expensive pillow I bought from Pottery Barn upstairs. I waited like that for 12 hours, and so did a couple hundred other people in line.

We talked to each other. A woman next to me was hiding a small puppy in her backpack, and we played with the adorable pup until security came. Then the security guard joined in the fun, because he was bored. We got frustrated and argued, and we calmed each other down. We were generous with each other, buying pizzas and drinks, and stingy as well, with our time and position in line. I met people, and though I don’t keep in touch, I see their names online from time to time and know we have something in common. We were all bored together.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we aren’t bored any more. I remember long car rides from my Baltimore suburb to Ocean City, Md. Five hours in traffic. It was horribly boring. But now, I drive that route maybe once every three years, and it’s nostalgic. I recognize the farm stands. I know which billboards are new, and which are decades old. I can see how the towns have changed, how the roads have been rerouted. That trip is never about getting there, it’s all about having fun once we’ve arrived at the beach. But all those years of boredom have created a connection that I didn’t know existed, and I didn’t know I would value so much.

I would never tell you to put down your technology. But I will tell you not to fear boredom. Don’t overpack for it. Just deal with the boredom head on, live through it, and come out the other side feeling like you’ve actually done something, even if that something felt like a horrible nothing at all.

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