Published on March 11th, 2008 | by Alex and Brett Harris
The Joy of Boredom
Driving home after running some errands for my family, I was listening to National Public Radio (NPR) when Carolyn Johnson, a writer with the Boston Globe, was interviewed about an article she had written entitled “The Joy of Boredom.”
I listened to the interview with great interest and was excited to hear her take the simple, counterintuitive, and rebelutionary position that boredom is, in fact, a good thing. We read the article as a family this evening, and I want to share it with you.
The joy of boredom
Don’t check that e-mail. Don’t answer that phone. Just sit there. You might be surprised by what happens.
by CAROLYN Y. JOHNSON
A DECADE AGO, those monotonous minutes were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
[Today,] these empty moments are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices. A few years ago, cellphone maker Motorola even began using the word “microboredom” to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which new mobile technology offers an escape.
But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods — while checking e-mail, while changing lanes on the highway — to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life’s greatest luxuries — one not available to creatures that spend all their time pursuing mere survival.
To be bored is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one. It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works.
Public health officials often bemoan the obesity epidemic, the unintended consequence of a modern lifestyle that allows easy access to calories. Technology seems to offer a similar proposition: a wide array of distractions that offer the boon of connection, but at a cost.
Paradoxically, as cures for boredom have proliferated, people do not seem to feel less bored; they simply flee it with more energy, flitting from one activity to the next. Ralley has noticed a kind of placid look among his students over the past few years, a “laptop culture” that he finds perplexing. They have more channels to be social; there are always things to do. And yet people seem oddly numb. They are not quite bored, but not really interested either.
In that first post, I wrote:
So what is boredom? Our father has always taught us that boredom is the mind’s equivalent to hunger. Just like hunger signals your body’s desire for food, so boredom signals your mind’s desire for mental stimulation. To put it simply, when you’re bored, your mind is hungry and it wants to eat.
When a person gets hungry enough, they’ll eat almost anything. It’s the same with boredom. If you get bored enough, you’ll start reading through the dictionary. I know, because I’ve done it before… And actually, I learned a lot of neat words.
Being bored, like being hungry, is not a bad thing. What is bad is when we satisfy that hunger with worthless clutter. Just like you can appease physical hunger by eating physical junk food, you can appease mental hunger by filling your mind with mental junk food. We eliminate the feelings of hunger, without delivering the nutrition our body needs. We eliminate our feelings of boredom, without allowing it to accomplish its intended purpose, which is to drive us to seek knowledge and gain character through study, thought, and hard work.
And in that second post, Brett wrote:
The following words, spoken by Francis Schaeffer decades ago, are increasingly relevant to our generation: “No one seems to want (and no one can find) a place for quiet, because when you are quiet, you have to face reality. But many in the present generation dare not do this because on their own basis reality leads them to meaninglessness; so they fill their lives with entertainment, even if it is only noise.”
Such escapism makes sense for non-Christians, yet most Christians act the same way — escaping from meaningful thought through the distraction of technology. I can remember many times when I’ve felt particularly thoughtful, but then the computer would beckon me. Ten minutes later I would have read a few emails, checked the comment section of our blog, browsed Google News and in the end, entirely lost my train of thought.
When was the last time any of us took just twenty minutes to think about deep, substantial things, like our future or our relationship with God? Did you know that we probably couldn’t? Through media our minds have been conditioned (or perhaps de-conditioned) to avoid deep or prolonged thought. We must constantly be moving and doing, but never thinking and planning. Every empty space must be filled with music or movies or Internet or texting or IMing. Every empty space must be filled, except the one between our ears.
Make time to read the Boston Globe article and Brett’s and my posts from the blog archives, then come back here and discuss.
You can use the following questions as a place to start:
- When was the last time you were really, truly bored? What happened?
- What “mental snacks” do you use to avoid boredom? Do they really work?
- What lifestyle changes can you make to harness the power of boredom?
- Where is the balance between using technology and being controlled by it?