The Art of Boredom

February 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

“I’m so bored.” These are three words parents dread hearing from their children, as they seem to carry the requirement that parents conjure up an array of suggestions about activities said children might undertake to mitigate their seeming lack of entertainment. Sitting on a plane last weekend, I heard this familiar exchange between a mother and son. I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to have the luxury of experiencing boredom. I thought about how I would respond to that situation, and whether, in fact, I could allow myself to sit with such feelings of dullness and tedium. The short, honest answer was, “no.”

Intrigued by this notion of boredom as an adult might experience it, and with a much-needed break from work approaching, I probed further. My anecdotal observations offer that not only are we uncomfortable with doing nothing, we are quick to assign judgment to it. How often do we take ourselves to task for not using our time more productively, or for “wasting time?” Standing in line at the airport, I saw people of all ages checking their phones — presumably perusing the latest Facebook updates or Twitter feed. As I waited, I was guilty of this as well (although I was actually reading a past edition of Brain Pickings that explored this question of the value of boredom).

British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips states, “Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.”

The wish for a desire — what a captivating and lovely thought! How can we possibly know what we really want to do, or how we long to spend our time, unless we stop “doing” and be still. Yet, how difficult that is for us in a modern world that links human worth to productivity, values longer workdays over sufficient sleep, and equates doing nothing with a lost opportunity. By choosing distraction or busyness over boredom — a suspension of time — we give up the opportunity to be fully present in the current moment.

I return to Phillips, who describes boredom in children as “a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.”

For adults, Phillips notes that boredom evolves to have a more pressing impact: “As adults, boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, ‘What does one want to do with one’s time?’ What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?”

I share these musings, thinking I am likely not alone in my struggle to stop doing and be still. I long for a day when I have nothing to do — and then when it arrives, I get busy getting stuff done! I cannot sit with my discomfort of boredom long enough to be attentive to that desire that might emerge from within. I do not wait for a clear answer to the question of how I want to spend this time — I get out in front of it, like the first car to go at a four-way stop.

So why does any of this matter? So what if I choose to work more, sleep less, multitask, and avoid boredom at all costs? I take one look at my 16-year old daughter, and realize in an instant that it matters tremendously. I cannot remember the last time she uttered those wonderful, precious words, “I am bored.” She is her mother’s daughter, always in motion, moving from one thing to the next, reluctant to stop long enough to sink into that “recurrent sense of emptiness out of which real desire can crystallize.” Sadly, and inadvertently, I have taught her well the value of hard work, but left out the accompanying lesson on the importance of sometimes doing nothing. Boredom, with its related faculties of contemplation, solitude, and stillness, is essential for a healthy life. As adults, we need to embrace and model the capacity to stop doing and be still, so that our children will learn to do the same. While seemingly an oxymoron, working hard at doing nothing is an admirable endeavor, and one I intend to take up.

Wishing you a restful, relaxing, and boring break!


Published in the Chalkboard from 2.14.18