Boredom is a Virtue

Or merely subjective

“Sleepy Dave” Stevens was hands down the most boring teacher at Williston Academy, a boys boarding school, the fall of my senior year, 1965. “Silly Putty” (aka “Herr Putnam”), our German teacher, was a close second, but “Sleepy Dave’s” 8:30 English class was where we boys learned how to feign attentiveness as we strained to fight the leaden weight of our eyelids, our heads bowed as though in prayer—eight monks in a sweating classroom whose tedious heartbeat was a single clanking radiator, all time slowed down to a merciless pace, we tried to pry open our eyes with our fingers.

It was not uncommon for a boy to hit his head on his desk and let out a soft cry of pain, whilst “Sleepy Dave” droned on, as semi-conscious as his students. Thanks to his dull commitment to alphabetic order, I sat in the first row, directly in front of the man, and became a master of feigned interest able to cope with interminable mind-numbing boredom: surely the same timeless boredom that awaited me in Purgatory, as my boyhood Catholic friends had promised.

Half a century later I find myself seeking out situations that many people would find utterly boring and bereft of any stimulation. I now see boredom’s benefits. In fact, I am convinced that boredom—or what is construed as boredom by many—is precisely the antidote to our fast-paced, jam-packed, over-programmed, tight-scheduled mindless rat-race. Boredom, or situations which some think boring, is the answer. What I was too tired to see in “Sleepy Dave’s” class, or more accurately, was unable to see because I was young enough to still expect stimulation to be external to me, was the fact that I had the very solution to his boredom within my own mind: my creative imagination.

When Melville’s Ishmael grows tired of his routine on dry land and finds nothing of interest to hold him ashore, he says, “…then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” Confronting the boredom of drab sameness, Ishmael shifts from detached engagement to active intentionality. In a similar fashion I offer the modern reader of a certain age the concept of boredom as the foundation for creative renewal. We fill our work lives with work and that is natural, but wonder, when facing retirement, what we will do with all that free time. Bingo? Shuffleboard? Just as they filled their work lives with work, many retirees contemplate filling their lives with busy task, purposeful things. Some even return to work, part-time: addicts unwilling to shuck the old routine and see the merits of boredom and a life of the mind.

After reading an article in The New York Times a few years ago, I embarked on what many would consider a worse fate than a pre-mature burial à la Edgar Allen Poe: a weekend retreat alone in a tiny Berkshire cabin without electricity or running water. Having spent my youth trying to dodge boredom’s leaden blanket, I sought it out as a refuge from what now was the boredom of the repetitive work-life routine. But mine was not an empty refuge. It was an active one. And therein lies the difference. After I’d taken care of the necessities— food, shelter, clothing—(remember Maslow’s hierarchy) at this simple retreat, and meeting no other human, inhaling the fresh mountain air, with no clock to set my time, I found myself sitting still the first morning. What next? There was, in that moment, nothing to do. Facing a new boredom, I found a moment of mindfulness.

So I began to do something. I wrote in a journal. I made tea. I walked in the woods and found poetry some other retreatant had tacked to a tree stump. I saw a house-sized boulder left by glaciers and put my hand into a brook full with late-winter melt-off and rimmed by ice. And I painted a sensuous watercolor of rocks I had found. Chased by the boredom of workaday humdrum and drawn to this quiet refuge, which most of my contemporaries would find maddeningly boring, I was inspired by this new boredom and became alert to its innate beauty. Curiously, this new boredom-inspired gave me new perspective on what I’d come to see as inertly repetitive office work and I took the sense of playful attentiveness back with me to my office.

I have a theory about boredom. So try this experiment: make a free-association list of all of the things you think could be boring to someone and see what you find. Not everything on your list has to be boring to you, just boring to some people, some of the time, in some circumstances. (For example, not all vacations are boring, but for some people the very thought of just lying on a beach reading paperbacks, or its opposite, a manic tour of European castles, is the essence of boring. So “vacations” are at the top of this list.)

Here’s the rest of my own boring list: cocktail parties, interviews, conversations, architecture, someone else’s wedding pictures, sex, clothes, brown shoes (Frank Zappa), grammar lessons (especially in a second language), TV shows, this essay, movies, lectures, some people, sermons, speeches (especially political), conferences and Power Point presentations, baseball (except little-league baseball games which are never boring—and why do we call it our “national pass-time”? Have we not invented one form of boredom to replace another?), basketball, soccer, football, synchronized swimming, traffic jams, chess, golf, old stories, one-liners, museums, waiting for someone (or waiting in line), ironing clothes, NPR, Fox News, weekly staff meetings, a silent Quaker meeting, airports, long car rides, elevator music, blind dates, meatloaf, hotel rooms, tennis, Enya, conversations about weather, sports analysts, documentaries about forest animals, and cities like Peoria, Illinois, or Saarbrücken, Germany. (If you live in Saarbrücken, I’m sure it’s a wonderful place, but I think there’s a good reason why my great grandmother left there a hundred years ago.)

My point is, we each have our own different long lists, each changing slowly. That classroom of “Sleepy Dave’s”? Were I there now, I’d pull myself from the Land of Nod and engage the good man in conversation. Or doodle. (Have you ever seen the wooden desktops of the most boring teachers? --thickly layered with the most creative graffiti. Some of us learned early the link between boredom and creativity.)

I’ve hinted at it already but a key facet of boredom is repetition. A grandfather can tell a child the same fairy tale over and over and the child will never tire of it. But change the story’s ending and you’ll quickly learn how much children love stories that are predictable, regardless how repetitive. Or as some adults savor "Downton Abbey," for example. But I digress. We humans are capable of endless repetition but at some point—and this point is different for every individual—this repetition yields to predictability and the one sure fruit of predictability is boredom. (Of course, I’d much prefer a predictable airplane flight to the alternative, though the boredom of a long-haul flight is another one for our list.)

Different things bore different people. Certainly there are situations where boredom can be altered, but always by our own intervention, our own invention. Some things are boring until we see something we’d failed to notice and now see, suddenly, as if anew. Tell a German visitor that baseball is an intellectual sport with secret signals and strategies and he’ll stop telling you the fat man at bat can’t be a real athlete and lean forward and start watching the game in earnest. (The German word for “boredom” is Langeweile or, roughly, “long time,” doubtless suggesting boredom’s impact on our perception of time. And the Reader will note that Heidegger, the German philosopher, wrote some 90 pages on boredom!) Conversely, something we once thought fascinating, say a Dürer print of a rabbit, rich in detail, might now bore in contrast to a Pollack, electric with energy. Novelty wears off.

When I asked some university students about boredom, most said they hadn’t the time to be bored. Their schedules were brimful: two majors, a minor, distribution requirements, on campus activities, lining up a summer internship, working for (or starting up) an NGO, a weekend gig with a mariachi band, and sights on a Fulbright or a Rhodes after graduation. Go on dates with someone special? Necking in the back row of a movie theatre while King Kong climbs the Empire State? Bor-ing. Forget about it. This is the hook-up culture: speed-dating, baby. No time.

But one student ventured the thought that boredom is primarily a “first-world” problem: humans in the “developing world,” he postulated, must focus on their primary needs and have little time left for reflection. Obviously, much depends on one’s circumstances and opportunities, but there seems to be a bit of truth in that student’s remark. Take Maggie Lieu, for example, a 24-year old British astrophysicist and a volunteer for the one-way space flight to colonize Mars. Asked her motivation, she offered, "I guess I'm bored of Earth."

I can hear a chorus of parental voices (one of them apparently mine, too, according to my daughters) chanting, “Only boring people get bored.” Tired as this old bromide is, there’s an element of truth in it. Flip it around and you get: “The only people who are bored are those whose curiosity failed them when they got bored.” In fact, boredom, or something very like it, is the foundation for human creativity. If necessity is the mother of invention, then boredom is the father of innovation.

I once heard the brilliant Pound scholar, Hugh Kenner, a professor in the English Department in The Johns Hopkins University, give a talk on “creativity.” (Around that time in the early 1980’s, Bill Moyers had a PBS series on “Creativity” and it was all the rage.) As a young man Kenner had sought out and befriended Ezra Pound and Buckminster Fuller and other intellectuals and some of the most creative minds of the past mid-century and he postulated that creativity required three conditions: boredom, knowledge of facts, and curiosity. What those of us in the audience expected was a magic formula for human creativity, a way to launch us all into a new realm of human consciousness. Instead, what Professor Kenner offered was a simple reminder that even the most creative humans had to know facts. But they also needed the quiet of boredom, that moment when all action stands still, briefly, to spark their curiosity—endless experiments: to find a filament that would sustain light (Edison); to find a way to use hot air to fly (Montgolfier); or to put words on paper (Gutenberg).

As his example, Professor Kenner cited the teenaged Galileo, who sat idly, bored, in the cathedral in Pisa, listening to a priest’s prayers echo amongst the granite and gold, when Galileo looked heavenward, as if for rescue, and noticed a chandelier swaying, imperceptibly. Curious, because he perceived a pattern to the motion, Galileo put two fingers on his wrist, timed the motion according to his pulse, and found that there was, indeed, regularity in the chandelier’s movement. This event took place seven years before Galileo famously dropped two balls off the leaning tower, mere steps from that same cathedral, Kenner told us, which spawned the young scientist’s interest in pendula and the hidden forces of physics. Thus the beauty of boredom.

And as a new grandfather, I felt moved to write “house rules” for our cottage on the coast of Maine: only one-ply toilet paper to protect the septic system; our outdoor shower was clothing optional; …and no television (in other words: no beeping mind-dumbing devices with screens). That latter rule admonishes guests with kids (mostly our daughters and their husbands) to: “Please give your kids the opportunity to get so bored that they start making up stuff on their own…”

Why are we afraid of boredom? Why flee it, when we should seek it and embrace it as a moment fertile for our creativity.  If we haven’t the time for boredom, we risk losing consciousness. In the long timeless moment that is boredom, its significance is revealed to the mind willing to engage it, to the mind that wills itself from inertia to action with intentionality. Ponder too long whether “to be or not to be” and you doom yourself to what appears to be a tormenting eternity. But that boredom is neither a constant nor a given—it is a human construct of our own invention. We know other animals use tools and we know that other animals communicate using language (though not, I submit, in the past tense, for that is the human tense—but that is another essay) and let us assume that other animals have come to know human boredom, too, as in our zoos, where all their needs are met (another essay), but only humans have the capacity to disengage from the boredom we sense, whatever the situation, and to grasp that the perception of unending sameness is but a momentary state and to launch our minds, perforce, into creative action. Thus boredom spawns creativity, which is quintessentially human.

If the inert boredom she experiences on earth propels Maggie Lieu to Mars she will surely discover on Mars the sublime creativity of the mind in the ultimate boredom of that dessicated red planet. Just as Einstein worked out the theory of relativity in the drab boredom of his tiny clerk’s apartment in Bern, so too Kafka begin to write stories from within the fertile boredom of a job in insurance.

Boredom—unproductive? Balderdash! Stare long enough at a rounded stone and the idea of the wheel appears. Gaze long enough at the test pattern on the television with your family gathered around and in time ideas for stories will bubble up naturally. And when you've decided you can finally afford to exit the routine of your desk job after hearing yourself uttering the words, “We’ve always done it that way…” and, unshackled, embrace the supposed freedom of retirement and sit at the breakfast table one morning, wondering what to do, bored already by this new routine you’ve created, then remember this: the difference between the experience of boredom in our youth, when we seek constant stimulation and novelty, and the boredom experienced in maturity is that we no longer expect to find all stimulation externally. We know now what to do with boredom: we disengage from boredom’s long moment and look within. Boredom’s antidote, its necessary counterpart, is the active mind. So bring it on, Baby Boomers, bring on the boredom, and embrace it, play with it, for it is but an opening, a first step to expressing our true selves. What would we do without it?

And yes, our parents were right, only boring people get bored.