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.