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In Praise of Boredom

Vic Sizemore

dolce-vita-la-106 My daughter spent the night with a friend, swam at the pool the following day, and came home to play video games—and drums—in the basement with three neighborhood boys. After dinner, she met other friends at May Lynn’s ice cream trailer down the road, in the parking lot across from Starbucks. She came home and, still smelling of chlorine, sat on the daybed in pink and white headphones thumbing away at her cell phone. Not thirty minutes later, she tromped into the sunroom where I was reading and pulled her headphones down around her neck.

“I’m going to take a walk with David,”she said.

“Why don’t you take a little break,”I told her. “You need some down time.”

She made her teenage-girl face at me and said, “But I’m bored.”

I’m bored. It’s not just a teenager’s gripe. Boredom is a bad thing, leads to trouble. Keep the kids busy with sports and band, the conventional wisdom goes, and they will not have time to fall in with the dope smokers out behind the high school. In my own childhood, I heard the phrase “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”too many times to count. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard writes that, “boredom is the root of all evil,”The Apostle Paul has some things to say about the dangers of being idle.

But what of our current attempt to cure our boredom with frenzied multitasking? Haven’t we conflated the idea of being still and alone with being idle? We have become a culture of unremitting busyness, are proud of it, addicted to it; however, as much as it is an addiction to busyness, it is a flight from boredom. We cannot stand to be alone with ourselves. We do not know how to wait through boredom into creative activity, so we slide into ennui. The problem is that we no longer take our boredom alone. We are connected by multiple devices to an endless stream of stimuli. We are not alone and yet we are still idle. We know this isn’t working so we try yoga —I hear it works wonders, though I’ve never done it myself.

Pascal famously said that all of humanity's problems come from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. When Kierkegaard writes that boredom is the root of evil, the cure he offers is not keeping busy. As Daniel Boorstin explains it, the only true relief “is to stay home, where the existing individual bores itself into inventiveness.”

When I get a little free time I’m going to try it.

(Photo from Fellini's La Dolce Vita)