I’ve often marveled at my husband’s ability to find pleasure in the mundane. He finds projects around the house and property that need attention and applies himself to them without complaint. He is currently scraping, sanding, and repainting individual pickets on our veranda. On the other hand, I vocally suffer from what Dostoevsky referred to a “the bestial and indefinable affliction”: Boredom.
It wasn’t until I stumbled across an essay by Joseph Epstein, Duh, Bor-ing, originally in Commentary Magazine, and then again in Best American Essays 2012, that I contemplated what boredom is exactly, and why it is not such a bad thing.
Like Epstein, and probably most other tweens and teens, I was brought up short by my parents when I complained about being bored. Epstein’s father told him to beat his head against a wall and he’d soon quit feeling that way. My mother was equally sympathetic; she told me only boring people got bored and to get out of the house. It was a version of the children-are-starving-in-Africa answer to my complaints, brushed aside as being unimportant and predictable.
According to Epstein, some people are more prone to boredom than others, and I guess my husband and I are proof of the opposites attract theory of marriages. But even he is apt to be temporarily bored by a dull speech or a hour-long wait in the doctor’s office. We all have it from time to time. Even animals become bored. I think my little basenji, who loves to run on the beach, was bored to death when recuperating from a broken leg. When we finally took him for his first walk, his whole face lit up and we could see his inner dogginess ignite realizing there would be a life for him outside the confines of his kennel.
There is transitory boredom, ennui, weariness, apathy, and or dissatisfaction. This can also descend into longer term monotony and eventually clinical depression. But Epstein seems to say that every human being has uttered the teen phrase, I’m bored, at some point or another.
I found it interesting that Epstein suggests that boredom occurs more often when there are high levels of distraction—Facebook? Twitter? TV? He also notes that primitive cultures seldom complain of the affliction. And I have watched any number of people in this country work at drudge jobs that would drive me insane, but I have yet to hear one complain about it.
But neither Epstein nor my parents bothered to suggest to us the possible benefits of boredom.
It seems to me that boredom forces us to look closely at ourselves. It puts our existence into perspective and can steer us into a place of contemplation and reflection. If we can push past the frustration of sitting—without action—we can come out the other side with something to show for it. This is the challenge of meditation, of yoga, and of writing.
We writers lock ourselves in rooms and purposefully create this kind of environment, specifically to induce reflection and creativity. Inspiration. Sit long enough and thoughts will come and pages will be written.
I wonder what it would be like if parents told their children that their boredom was good for them and that it proved they were imaginative people. Would it change how we look at it?