"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Is Boredom A Good Thing?

One day a number of years ago, I was shepherding my son’s playgroup, five pre-school boys. They were in the back yard hacking around, wrestling, finger-shooting at each other from behind trees, the petunia bed, and the downspout; and showing each other their finds – bird feathers, scary marks and splotches on the fence, tangled jungle-like vines.  All except one kid.  “Mr. Parlato”, he said, “I’m bored”. I suggested the many things that he could do.  Why didn’t he climb the cherry tree? Or ride the scooter in the alley?

“That’s too boring”, he replied.  I suggested watering the bushes or filling the big Peter Rabbit watering can and sprinkling the flowers. “That’s too boring”, he said, now with an irritating whine in his voice.  I tried again and suggested playing catch with the dog, exploring the window wells for toads, and checking the fence line for rabbits.  “Too boring”, he repeated. This kid was a real pain in the ass.  I gave him a length of rope and an old doll of my daughter and said, “Why don’t you play cowboy and hang the doll from the limb of that tree”. 

“Too boring” he said again in the same nasal whine as before. He was hopeless.

I have been bored many times in my life.  The worst ever was when I had to spend three weeks in Puno, Peru in the late 70s.  High on the altiplano on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Puno could be a spectacularly beautiful place.  In the crisp, thin air the sky was an almost impossibly deep blue, the snowcapped peaks of the Andes were brilliantly white, and the flat, dry plains brown and mauve. 

When the sun shone the layered skirts and multicolored shawls of the Aymara women were bright and exotic.

When it rained, however, everything changed.  The skies were grey, the air wet and cold.  The streets became rutted, muddy, and impassable. Peasants who had come in from the country trudged to ratty markets, smoked under dripping roof overhangs, and ate cheap potato soup in makeshift food stalls.  In the rain there was no place to go – no movies, no libraries, no restaurants.  On sunny days I would walk for miles across the plains, on the shores of the Lake, and up the foothills of the mountains.  On rainy days I could only stay in my hotel – a cement slab of a building with no heat, intermittent power, and only grisly meat and rotten potatoes to eat.  I was up there three weeks, and it rained every day.  Although I worked for a few hours every morning and afternoon during the week, the office closed at 2pm, and I had long afternoons and evenings to myself.  I knew no one.  I ran through my few books within days.  I had no radio, and there was no TV.  I lay on my bed for hours, trying to sleep, got up and slogged through the dismal grey, wet, and foul-smelling town, and went back to my room.  I was bored.

It had nothing to do with a spoiled brat, self-indulgence.  It had nothing to do either with a lack of inner resources, creativity, or ingenuity.  I didn’t miss New York, bars, and girlfriends; or lively restaurants, music, and television.  During long weekends in Puno which started at 2pm on Thursday, I would speak to no one. I lived in total, enforced silence. It was not only boring; but it tested my endurance and fortitude.

Giles Fraser, writing in The Guardian (6.29.13) notes that our fear of boredom is simply a fear of coming face to face with ourselves

Indeed, the interesting thing here is the panic that boredom seems to evoke in some people, as if their lives require the intervention of continual entertainment in order to be meaningful. This seems just a bit too much like an admission that life without the Xbox is indeed not meaningful. Ultimately, this subterranean anxiety is profoundly diminishing.

Nothing could have been further from the truth as I stared at the four cold cement walls of my hotel room in Puno.  I wasn’t looking for ‘continual’ entertainment, external stimulation, and excitement.  I didn’t feel a panic of withdrawal or some inner angst about aloneness, being and nothingness.  I was just absolutely bored silly.

I spent most of my working life as a private consultant and have been able to set my own hours and work at my own pace. After a few hours in my office at home, I got up to stir the soup, walk the dog, go to the store.  I often got up very early, finished my work by noon, and spent the afternoon walking, at the movies, or playing tennis.  However in the few jobs I have had, I endured such a crushing boredom that I wondered if I could stand it.  By mid-afternoon the desire for sleep was painful. I walked the floors, sat on the park benches outside my building, bobbling and toppling over from sleep-desire.  I was only saved from the ignominy of sleeping outside the World Bank on a park bench by some residual sense of pride and shame. In desperation I often resorted to the Breastfeeding Room on the fourth floor for a few moments of dark, stretched out sleep.

All this has nothing to do with a sense of anomie, loss of self-worth, or even frustration at my inability to deal with adversity.  It was just plain, unadorned, uncomplicated, crushing boredom.

I am never bored these days, because I am too old.  I am far closer to the end of my life than its beginning.  I have the compulsive feeling that any moment not used is a moment lost, and since I don’t have that many moments left, I better not waste them.  I find sleep itself boring, and get up at ridiculous hours to read and write.  If I wake up in the middle of night, I not only do not toss and turn, but relish the good fortune of having some extra time to think.  As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Too soon old, too late shmart” and I want to at least have a crack at figuring things out before I go gaga.

With few exceptions, kids and alter kockers are rarely bored.  Most children – the whiney brat of the playgroup excepted – have too much energy, curiosity, and spirit to be bored.  Everything is interesting and a discovery.  Older people like me have the same curiosity and intellectual energy and the compulsion of time at our backs.

I get Fraser’s point, although I am a little impatient at yet another swipe at popular culture. Today’s electronic, media-saturated, multi-tasking, society, it seems to him, are denying us access to our inner selves, our spiritual depths.  How can we contemplate God, reflect on our place in the world, do acts of contrition and penance, listen to the music of the spheres if we are plugged in, turned on, and otherwise absorbed?

This narrow and predictable conclusion is unfortunately not correct.  Most young people find this new environment intellectually and personally exciting.  The world today is more accessible than ever before. Social interactions are more possible and more diverse than at any time in our history.  Exposure to new and exciting ideas and discoveries limitless.  Every sense can be stimulated, challenged, and rewarded.  Of course we have withdrawal symptoms if our I-Phone is lost, the computer goes down, or the lights go out; and are at loose ends until power and devices are restored.  But is this a symptom of some psychological dysfunction? Some moral failing? Or a denial of an interior dignity and humanity?  Far from it.

Boredom is a fact of life.  Even the most committed and visionary naturalist will stop on the trail every so often, look at the dense rows of pines and firs on either side, and say to himself, “Whew, this is boring”.  Plan too many days on a secluded tropical beach, the idyll of your dreams, and you will be bored.  Fascinated by the discovery of Shakespeare’s Sonnets after 40 years of neglect as I was?  By the time I got to No. 103, I said to myself, “What? Fifty-one more to go?”.

I know many young people who lead exciting, active, multi-tasking lives and who revel in the challenge, feed off the sensory and intellectual diversity, and who evolve with more understanding and insight than the bookish, priory-bound supplicant sitting in a quiet church pew.

I know many more for whom moments of respite are valued, and who use this time to turn off all devices and settle into a good book.  Most people are quite able to navigate a complex world with intelligence and resourcefulness.  I know very few people who have been turned into zombies by all the TV, Internet, and IPod music.

Of course there are millions of people working repetitive, mind-numbing jobs because they have to.  They are bored all the time, bored silly on the assembly line, bored senseless making change; bored out of their gourds working on the same frozen shoulders, replaced hips, and balky knees every day; bored numb after checking out eight hours’ worth of frozen dinners, cheap donuts, pretzels, and toilet paper.  Not to be bored is a luxury of the privileged.  We are lucky to live in such a varied, promising environment.  We should never be bored, and should sympathize with those for whom boredom is a way of life.

1 comment:

  1. Jackie Bouvier (sic?) Kennedy Onassis was quoted as saying more than once as a child, "Oh, mother, not lobster again tonight." Even too much of a good thing can lead to boredom. . .

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