Boredom, a Eulogy

As a kid, visiting the grandparents was no simple trip. We lived in Texas’ coastal swamp, squished up against Louisiana while they were on the high windy plains at Amarillo. In an age of 55mph speed limits and two-lane Interstates, the journey stretched from dawn to dusk and beyond. Rolling around unbuckled in the back of the hot van, there was simply nothing to do. My sisters and I took turns holding our faces against the AC vent. We sang songs. We bickered and fought. We requested unnecessary bathroom stops. We raised, in unison, the great universal lamentation of the back seat – “Are we there yet?” We were bored.

I can’t remember the last time I was bored. My kids have never experienced the sensation and don’t know what it is. Sometimes, I miss boredom.

Last year we drove from Chicago to New Jersey to spend the holidays with family. Thirteen hours trapped in a car and no one experienced a hint of boredom. While driving I listened to podcasts. Bluetooth let me hear texts and emails from work and conduct a few calls. Phones, tablets and laptops, rechargeable on the go, with access to the Internet, meant a grinding road trip without ten minutes worth of conversation. The boys didn’t argue. I don’t think they spoke. We could have left someone behind at a rest stop and not noticed.

Boredom has disappeared from our lives and with it, the ingenuity it spawned. I grew up with three television stations, none of which tuned in reliably. There was music on the radio. Once in while you could go to the movies. My parents had a couple dozen vinyl records. That was our entertainment universe. Boredom stalked us, especially in the summer. To escape its grip we were constantly on the move.

We roamed in packs, trying to round up enough people for a good football or basketball game. We spent time with people we didn’t like much because we needed the distraction, until they eventually became irreplaceable friends. We invented scenarios with toys, imagined ourselves into dumb adventures in tree forts and bayous. We tried in vain to destroy fire ant mounds, inventing painful dares along the way. We ran and swam and schemed to defeat boredom, but it often found us.

Stuck in the house on a rainy day, on a long car ride, or just waiting for something (remember waiting?), it would rise over you. Sometimes there was nothing to do but rest in it, sinking into the oppressive stillness, until there was nothing but nothing. That mental quiet is a sensation I can scarcely remember, a place of pained, restless and fertile imagination. Boredom was unpleasant and uncomfortable, but out of it sprang a unique capacity for reflection that seems impossible to recreate now.

A few years ago we tried to watch the film, Ben Hur, with the kids. I was nine or ten when I saw it for the first time and I was riveted. The boys were agitated from the beginning. What the hell is an overture and why is nothing happening? After an hour of their writhing I noticed something – I was getting sick of it too. Irreplaceable minutes of my life slipped away during Charlton Heston’s meaningful stares. The dialogue was needlessly wordy. Actors went on rhetorical tangents that failed to move the plot. We began fast-forwarding through unnecessary pauses and editable scenes. We promised them that someone actually died during filming to hold them in their seats through the chariot race (Are you not entertained?). After a rash of “are we there yet” complaints we checked the runtime – almost four hours. Sweet Jesus, I had no idea it was that long. We could watch half a Netflix series in the time it takes to sit through these orchestral interludes.

Needless to say, my kids don’t know how Ben Hur ends. We declined to attempt a family movie night with Lawrence of Arabia.

I asked my kids about boredom. They couldn’t describe it. They frequently use the term “boring,” but it refers to poor or unengaging entertainment. School is often boring, not because they were asked to lay their heads on their desk for half an hour after an exam, but because they found the class material or presentation insufficiently exciting. Ben Hur was boring. They haven’t experienced boredom, only impatience.

Boredom is defeated, but should we miss it? A project for work encouraged us to learn meditation. Sitting still, counting breaths, a lost sensation began to flow over me. I chafed and wiggled like a younger me trapped in an endless church service. On the way into a calm reflective state, an old nemesis was back – boredom. My mind filled with grocery lists. I felt hungry. My butt hurt. I was ten and trapped, looking for something to do. Then came that feeling, like laying in the tree fort with my head hanging out the door, watching the clouds. Silence. Receptive emptiness. Wakeful rest.

Then came the intrusive thought: how many thousands of dollars did we spend to recreate what used to be an inescapable nuisance?

For every form of progress we trade a few values that get left behind. Trains and cars let us get there fast and cheap. In exchange, we lost our sense of terrain, our ability to see the land under our feet, its life, the colors and smells of its rocks, a sense of movement measured in the changing arrangement of grasses and trees. Electricity, radio and TV took our awareness of the sky, our capacity to read the future in the clouds or tell time by the stars. I can’t say I miss boredom, but I sometimes worry what we sold to buy our freedom from its embrace.

By the way, thanks for sticking with this all the way to the end.

23 Comments

  1. Trump has filled 21 appellate court positions in record time. At this same point in his presidency, Obama had filled only 9. Of course, he was blocked and delayed throughout the process which is why Reid lifted the fillibuster which allowed Obama appointees to be appointed. Here’s background on how the parties have politicized the Judiciary and some creative ideas for what Democrats as the minority party might do to counter the push by Republicans to stack the courts while they still hold the majority. Desperate times, desperate measures.

    Still – Trump wants “more”, the AP reported. He even attempted to dictate to a former Federal Reserve member who he interviewed for chairman. “Kevin Warsh, a former Fed official who President Donald Trump interviewed for the chairman post, said in an interview earlier this month with Politico that Trump did not appear to view the Fed as an independent body. He said Trump was direct about how he thought interest rates should be managed.”

    Unchecked authoritarianism – it’s happening here. America’s system of checks and balances is on life support.

    https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-the-democrats-could-thwart-trumps-supreme-court-takeover

    https://apnews.com/01973ebc7b054bfcbf8e249a28e302d1

    1. His appetite for power’s like a leaky water bottle – there’s no filling it up, no matter how hard he tries.

      Regardless, we’ll just have to see if Democrats can pull a hat trick and retake the Senate this November. At the very least, incumbents – even in difficult races – in the out-of-power party have a damn good track record when it comes to reelection.

      1. The statistic for incumbent re-election is 92%. Staggering in its implications for the intelligence and attention of the voters of America.

        There are encouraging signs that at least/or maybe at last, Dems seem to be coalescing around a central message. About time, but welcome. It’s all about GOTV. Getting Dems off the couch because we know Repubs will be just as motivated to keep their majorities.

        https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/27/opinion/democrats-populist-campaign-midterm-trump.html?

    1. This is a fascinating article. It is worthy of a whole post, exploring what has been achieved (for better or worse) and what has been lost. One obvious failure has been the loss of equal status for Congress given the authoritarian tenure of Trump. Many other areas…saw parallels between the Democratic Study Committee and today’s Freedom Caucus, and much more. Would love for others to weigh in. Thanks, Aaron for posting.

  2. Beautifully written, Chris.

    The loss isn’t boredom, it’s the skills to deal with it – inventing entertainment, rumination, making do with inferior options, etc. I think the effect will be much like the loss of routine exercise and casual contact when we moved to a car-oriented world. Decades later, we’ll see problems pop up that we had never anticipated – obesity and loneliness for car culture, and probably things involving focus and tolerance for internet culture.

    Actually, now I’m wondering if this has something to do with the increasing polarization and “purity ponies” in our society. Is part of it that people are losing the ability to voluntarily deal with the (to them) imperfect?

    1. Good points, Fair. I think also of what we have lost with air conditioning (that’s a tough one, tho!) and front porches. People used to engage more with their neighbors – it was simply more convenient. Of course, television was a big culprit as well. And, as noted, all of these wonderful inventions have benefitted us as well…Trade offs.

      Occasionally the electricity will go off for a few hours and I am struck by the beauty of pure silence. No interuptions, no noise. Times like these offer opportunities for reflection through quiet moments. It’s become more difficult to find those stretches of time and to be comfortable in them.

      One year as a surprise, my husband arranged a wonderful vacation for us. His stipulation to the travel agent? Let it be somewhere without phones or television. We enjoyed a full week of life without these conveniences at the beautiful resort of Caneel Bay in the Virgin Islands, while experiencing the beauty of the area. The resort was later destroyed in a major hurricane but has been rebuilt. Wonderful memories and a great opportunity for a couple to share time without interruption. It sometimes takes a tragedy, a serious illness, or something as simple as the loss of electricity for a few hours to appreciate the magic calm of stillness.

      1. In terms of noise, it’s remarkable to be in Venice, which doesn’t have cars, and notice how quiet everything gets, even in a dense city. If you live in a metropolitan area in the US, the car noise never ends.

  3. I signed up for the site after years of reading your stuff entirely to leave a comment on this story, so, you know, there’s THAT.

    Here’s the thing…every bit of this essay rubbed me the wrong way. For one thing, the problem with nostalgia is that it almost always finds a way to ignore the dark side of the thing you’re missing. Yes, being bored can lead one to epic flights of fancy (though, to be brutally honest, I’ve never had a problem using my imagination, whether a smartphone was present or not), but “being bored” has also, historically speaking, resulted in children committing their most heinous acts. Children can be incredibly cruel, especially when bored and unsupervised; I’ll never forget the time at my very last Boy Scout summer camp when a gang of my fellow Scouts decided to brutally kill a frog because they “didn’t have anything else to do” (and I stood with another gaggle to watch because, again, “we didn’t have anything else to do”). Nevermind that memory is an unreliable thing, and is often colored and distorted by how we like to imagine ourselves reacting, in light of who we now are (take my step-dad saying, like you, that he was “enraptured by Ben-Hur,” causing his father to loudly scoff and remind him that my step-dad had, in fact, whined and fidgeted until my grandfather gave up thirty minutes in and they left the theater).

    But what struck me the hardest, what rubbed the the wrong way the most, was how your memories of “being bored on car trips” and the like seems to be completely blind to what’s such things are like when your family isn’t nice. My step-father is a cruel, bigoted, tyrannical a**hole; road trips before the advent of smartphones and iPods were an exercise in torture. They were hellish and traumatizing, hours-on-end trapped in an enclosed space, no chance to escape, while my step-father alternated between cruel taunts, long, insult-filled rants, and sullen silence, during which even the slightest noise would start the process all over again. The day in high school when I saved up enough to buy a first-generation iPod was one of the happiest days of my life…though even then, when my step-father wanted my attention on a car ride, he had no problem ripping my earphones out, hitting me hard enough to leave my ears ringing, and resuming his rant on why black people and Jews were responsible for all that was wrong with the world.

    I’m thirty-one, positioned in an odd position to straddle the Before Times and the Modern Times, and while modern technology has brought some problems, the abolition of boredom is not one of them. People still get bored in the exact same dictionary definition that this entire post is clinging to to make its point, especially those too poor to be able to afford all the bells and whistles you and your family distract themselves with. But all of that ignores how, for many, boredom is a nightmare, not some sort of “opportunity” or “benefit.”

    And for some of us, your “nostalgic roadtrips” leave us nothing with cold shivers running up and down our spines.

  4. Interesting conversation. I like it. I have several thoughts.

    Firstly, that picture at the header of the article is misleading. The kids were given an app to research information about the painting. But it’s still a nuanced misleading, because the photographer who took the picture stated:

    “I think a well-designed museum app should continuously direct the attention of the user from the phone to the actual objects on display.

    “The children in the photograph didn’t look up, they just kept staring at their phones. Frans Banning Cocq, the prominent nightwatcher in the background, seemed equally perplexed by it.”

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/howaboutthat/12103150/Rembrandt-The-Night-Watch-The-real-story-behind-the-kids-on-phones-photo.html

    So sometimes the broader stroke debates of culture are really just a specific design issue from a certain situation.

    Which kind of brings me to the struggle I’m having with your post. On the one hand, the changing media landscape has shifted the way we handle information and even think, in profound and noticable ways, which are worth taking care and consideration in how they affect us as a species. And on the other hand, there’s nothing useful about being bored at the back of a car during a long road trip except your personal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is a personal thing, and has a feeling and emotion that affects your memories and appreciation of your own narrative, but it doesn’t really say anything about culture or society. It’s just your thing.

    My personal thing is that I grew up without broadcast or paid television, and took a lot of road trips that are very fond memories, relate to your boredom and your nostalgia, and am not impressed by it as a ‘value’ lost to society by progress that has replaced it with mediated noise.

    ‘In my day,’ as the OG sez, we filled the road trip time counting off the alphabet on passing signs and adding each digit of car license plates until we ended up with a single digit number; decades later, when I don’t feel like reading or doing a personal project, I play apps like Words with Friends or Bejeweled. These actions are effectively the same: repetitive and predictable with slight or limited variation. They serve no real purpose and sometimes there’s a win or a completion, but it’s usually just followed immediately with a restart. It’s not creative nor philosophical. It’s just a part of the brain that gets a minor, but dependable, dopamine rush when it takes an action and an immediate response takes place. I see no difference between my childhood boredom and these apps, except that the apps have advertisements. But then again, so did the alphabet game, in the form of billboards describing what exit which fast food could be located.

    Though technology and infrastructure rapidly change, real changes to a species are slow and often overrated. A lot of the ‘fake news’ debates we have today use the same structure as literal Socratic dialogs. The human brain is both lazy and information seeking. It will fill blank space with information that isn’t there just to keep itself conscious*, but it will ignore a lot of information that is there just to keep itself stable. Being bored because entertainment isn’t available and being bored because the entertainment isn’t qualitative are two sides of the same attention coin.

    * Cf. sensory deprivation chambers. Also cf. all the parts of the Bible and other mythologies where people disappear into deserts for long periods of time. I grew up in a desert, they are natural deprivation chambers. It’s not surprising to me that religions, cults, and spiritual retreats are plentiful in deserts, where they have the combined advantage of being away from the information of civilization and also being in the place where the brain so cognitively craves information that it starts making its own.

    As to your description of meditation, it’s easy to scoff at the idea of paying for the privilege of boredom; but on the other hand forced boredom such as solitary confinement creates genuine trauma in prisoners, who often and relatively consistently report psychedelic and fundamentally cognitively altering effects that takes a lot of therapy and self-care to recover from. Just because you were bored by meditation but it doesn’t make meditation the process of self-induced boredom. Meditation and boredom are different things, and boredom wasn’t what you were paying for.

    I do like your expressions “Receptive emptiness. Wakeful rest.” That’s closer to the thing I’m pointing at regarding spiritual desert retreat and the creativity of artists in contemplation. When you describe the irritation and impatience, the grocery lists and what have you, I don’t see how that differs from your childrens’ failed attempts to define boredom as impatience with failure to entertain.

    What I’m saying here is that meditation doesn’t induce boredom in order to get you to the receptive emptiness and the wakeful rest and you don’t get to receptive emptiness and wakeful rest exclusively through meditation. Boredom is defined by the irritable response of a brain to a lack of attention-grabbing information, and it can be applied to either entertainment or traveling through Kansas prairie or hanging out in a sensory deprivation chamber or being locked in solitary confinement. Once you lose the irritation, it’s no longer boredom. It’s your brain inducing information. Those two states definitely need to be distinguished.

    Which brings me back to the painting/app issue. Can we claim that the kids necessarily have to look at the painting to understand it, when they have an app that shows it both visually and delivers direct information to explain it? Is it necessary for the original painting to be physically present for you to look at it? Do you have to gain a personal relationship with boredom in order to be familiar with a meditative state?

    I’m not sold on the concept that boredom is valuable, or is a value, when I feel there are many methods of both internal and external contemplation that deliver the same results. I strongly feel that The Actual Thing has a primacy over its digital recreations. I feel quite open to opposing arguments on either or both.

    1. Side note, Ben Hur is a terrible, saccharine movie that was famous for its production value and scale, much like Avatar was in 2009. For all the critics lists it makes, the argument for its value usually revolves around “the horserace was awesome!” which is the late 50s equivalent of Star Wars Episode 1’s “The podrace was awesome!” excuse: an exciting scene that doesn’t justify a shitty movie. The movie you decided not to watch, Lawrence of Arabia, is a thoughtful, quality movie in a different league of story and acting than Ben Hur. Your kids may still be impatient with it, but not for the same reason as Ben Hur. Ben Hur didn’t age well; Lawrence of Arabia, simply stated, wasn’t intended for the entertainment of kids.

      1. Sorry, and regarding the ‘orchestral interludes’, movies weren’t considered a ‘sit through from beginning to end in a single watching’ thing until 1960. Alfred Hitchcock actually invented it with Psycho, by insisting that theatres not allow patrons in after it started, effectively starting the blocked viewing we’re familiar with today.

        Yes, Ben Hur is almost four hours long. And, you were supposed to take breaks, dude. Even the original producers wouldn’t have expect you to binge watch it. The music was your cue to go piss.

  5. To some extent, this essay is an analog to how most US Americans are less citizens than they are consumers.

    That is the ultimate goal of the FreeMarket™, by the way. Replace government with corporations.

    And the easiest way to do that is to keep people busy at work, or busy at play.

  6. “We spent time with people we didn’t like much because we needed the distraction, until they eventually became irreplaceable friends.”
    Bingo.
    By the way I find these less-is-more paradoxes fascinating. We have strictly more options than before, yet somehow we are in many ways moving backwards.

  7. I’m a little older (actually, a lot older) than Chris, but I remember those same feelings when I was a kid. One of the ways I fought boredom was to listen to the radio. There were baseball games in the summer, football in the fall, basketball (college) in the winter. There was drama on the radio, and it was very engaging. There was popular music and classical music, which could both engage your attention. There was news that really was news, and commentary by interesting and erudite commentators.

    What those things had in common was that they depended on the listener’s imagination to fill in the pictures. I think that’s some of what we’ve given up with all our electronic devices. I still like the old ones. I read, I write, I listen; I seldom watch. I spend long periods of time disconnected, with my primary visual stimulus being the scenery out the window.

    My kids will live long after I’m gone. They’ll see things, and know things, I can’t even imagine. But I don’t think I’d want to trade my life for my kids’ or their kids’ lives. I think I’ve lived in the Golden Age of the World.

    1. Yes. My childhood was created mostly by my desires and enthusiasm. I was out of the house as soon as I had completed my “chores” and off on my bike to whatever neighbor’s house was open. We played cards, had neighborhood plays, raced on our bikes, and read, and read. We had lemonade sales and played hide and seek (“real” hide and seek…in the woods hide and seek) TV was no competitor to a ten year old’s unbridaled imagination. There were no team sports, just corner lot baseball (I was the only girl allowed because I could run fast), tree houses, rope swings and hanging out. Time was a luxury we owned; it didn’t own us. That is a problem with so many families today – propelled by schedules and societal demands. Stop it. Your lives will be richer for what you give up more so than planning every last minute of every day. Our world is moving too fast, and believe me, it gets to the end fast enough without any help from us. Savor every moment. Screw Donald Trump. He’s not worth one second of our lives. Not.one.second. Try boredom instead, or as Chris calls it, “wakeful rest.”

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