The Promise of Boredom

The other day a friend said to me, “I get bored in yoga classes.”

At first I thought, “Really?” But then I decided to be honest with myself and admit that I sometimes get bored with the idea of yoga, too. Sometimes I get bored in class; mostly I get bored with the idea of going to class.

It isn’t just yoga. When I was a long distance runner, I used to get bored with the idea of my daily run. I get bored with my healthy breakfast, or by the idea of going to bed on time.

Often I’m even bored by the idea of sitting down to write. Now that’s really crazy because, for me, life is so much better on the days that I get to write. Even so, I will do the oddest things to avoid the boredom that arises when I sit down to write: read spam email, make a schedule for when I’m going to write in the future (ha!), and yes, poke around on Facebook.

My kids complain every day about homework and music practice being boring. My daughter is truly creative when it comes to protesting against boredom, and will spend more time designing elaborate “boredom tortures” for “the guy who invented homework,” than she eventually will on the actual homework itself.

Homework

Granted, sometimes her homework is really, really boring. Lots of things are really, really boring. Folding clothes, for example. Entering data into spreadsheets. Showering. Picking up legos. Driving across Iowa.

When I was a kid and complained of boredom, my dad would make me pick bugs off the potato plants, or clean out the car, or do a “litter hunt” around our yard. My mom would say, “If you’re bored it means you’re a boring person.” (Ouch.) In both of their responses there was an inherent disdain for boredom, as well as the message that you must at all time be active in order to be a good person.

After all, idle hands are the devil’s playthings.

But is boredom really so bad as all that?

Yes, of course. If you’re talking about the kind of boredom over which there is no control, such as for prisoners, or for workers who perform repetitive tasks for long shifts, like factory workers or air traffic controllers or miners. In these cases, there is no place for boredom to take you; you’re just stuck in boredom and it can be deadly, not just because it results in loss of attention and accidents, but because it steals away humanity.

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But I’m not talking about that kind of enforced, prolonged, inhumane boredom. No. Because if I were dealing with that kind of boredom, I wouldn’t be writing a silly blog about yoga, would I?

But I am writing a silly blog about yoga, and so the kind of boredom I’m talking about, I would argue, is not the stuff of devilment.

So why such a fear of boredom? Why is boredom so equated with danger?

Well, put kids on a playground with organized activities, with structures and rules, and very few kids will get hurt. But give those kids an empty parking lot and maybe a stick… and expect bruises or scrapes or even stitches and arm casts, because anything can happen when a kid is bored. Every parent can tell you as much. Yes, sometimes they put the littlest one in an empty barrel and roll her down the hill. But sometimes they build a fort, or paint a picture, or write a story.  Sometimes they get out their instruments and form a band.

The truth is, boredom is incredibly fertile ground for creativity and (gasp!) change.

How often, during the most mindless of activities, does that creative inspiration strike, like a tiny lightening bolt to the gray matter? Maybe it jolts loose the solution to a scene in a novel, or sparks an idea about how to approach some parenting challenge. My husband once had the entire melody to a new song come to him while raking pine needles in my mom’s yard. I can’t tell you how many times a perfect line of dialogue has popped into my mind when I’m brushing my teeth.

Why does inspiration so often strike during boredom? Perhaps it is because, when we are bored, we actually begin to think in a different way. So often these days our minds are actively engaged or entertained or otherwise problem-solving, working too hard and fast to take time for reflection or wonder. But when our minds are released from a structured activity or from a frenetic pace, and put into a “boring” place, perhaps folding underwear, or waiting for the commuter train with a dead cell phone, our thoughts take flight from boredom before us; they wander and reflect, discover, make connections, and create.

I suppose the difference between “bad” boredom and “good” boredom is whether we can move away from it, and if so, how we choose to escape it.

If we run from boredom to another entertainment, then boredom has done nothing for us. It has taken us no where and improved us in no way. If I avoid going to yoga because I want to avoid the boredom of yet another Downward Dog, and instead watch a movie or search the web, I’ve not benefited from boredom. This is just inertia in disguise.

But if I go to the same old yoga class with the same old instructor in the same old studio, and do the same old sun salutations for the boring 4,085th time, what might I discover? What new insight might I have? Perhaps I will recognize that the way my bunions cause me to carry my weight on the outside of my feet in turn leaves my inner knees weak and prone to injury. Or perhaps, suffering yet again through an extended Warrior II, I might come up with my next exciting blog post. Both have happened – and are way more likely to happen again – when I’ve accepted boredom for what it is, a necessary evil on the path to something good.

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Promise of Boredom

  1. great post – thank you! I think of boredom like ‘negative’ emotions such as sadness — they are all fertile opportunities if we can find the space to turn around and see them that way. Maybe boredom is not that you are a boring person, but almost a (gasp!) lazy person — not able/willing to find the novelty that’s always there somewhere if you can find it? [I don’t mean *you personally* of course!] even in the 108th sun salutation — it’s always a new beginning in some sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, exactly. Boredom offers us a choice of what we want to do with it. Mostly I think people are out of practice of being bored, and so they are out of practice with knowing how to make use of boredom. Thank you for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

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