I’m a big fan of boredom. You know, that uncelebrated silence devoid of music, idle conversation, game riffs, television, texts, flashing lights…the sensory detritus of our over-stimulated environment.
My mother believed that kids should be outside in the sunshine, so I spent a lot of time laying in the grass or up in the branches of our backyard maple. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t always pleased about it, but I ended up daydreaming my way through many of the myriad problems that beset childhood. I watched ants, told myself stories, made up games and held buttercups beneath my chin. The result? I built a vast store of “in-house” musings to get me through every monotone lecture class, every queue, and even through a mind-numbing first job at Canada’s National Archives filing thousands of cards in the catalogue drawers.
It’s not that I thought boredom was so terrific; its end result gave me time to mull over problems and keep on going. On summer afternoons I figured out that I didn’t need to be friends with the popular girls to have a good time. In the National Archives I learned how many millions of books have been written on subjects I didn’t even know existed. I sure got humble in a hurry.
Recently, as I sat in a dentist’s office I had the leisure (and a certain amount of boredom) to watch others in the waiting room. About two thirds whipped out their phones and occupied themselves with the offered amusements. My attention was caught by a boy, thirteen or fourteen, who did not take out his phone.
He started by looking around at the people in the room, offering a brief tentative smile if eye contact was made. Clearly he was nervous about the upcoming dental treatment but he spent time watching the paths of the fish in the aquarium, tracking the way their food floated down to them. Next he twisted around and peered through the wavy glass to see what was happening in the exam room. When his own turn came, he recognized the hygienist and knew which way to go. Small stuff – stuff that made him aware.
When I taught high school, many of the kids couldn’t focus unless they were entertained. Books remained unread, notes were half-taken, knowledge stayed out of reach. Occasionally to try to drive home the point that nonstop music, games, pics and texts were blinders on their lives, I would ask the kids to sit relaxed with hands folded loosely in their laps for two minutes. Usually less than half the kids could last even a minute. Maybe five or six could make it to the full two minutes.
Two minutes. They could not be alone with their own thoughts for two minutes!
Babies are expected when warm, dry and fed, to allow themselves to fall asleep, to self-soothe. In never allowing kids to be bored, or expecting them to mull things over in silence or without activities, we have created a generation of people who don’t have the experience in doing for themselves. How can we expect them to work, act and vote thoughtfully, if they have so rarely been left to think things through without music, voices and glitz?
There’s nothing like being bored to throw someone back to themselves. And to my mind, that can be a very good place to be.