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The Spiritual Value of Boredom

January 7, 2011

A young man from South America stayed as a guest with my family during the Christmas Holidays. It was his first ever visit to the United States. When we asked how the American Christmas compared to the same tradition in his home country, he tilted his head slightly and, in a slow Spanish accent, said, “In America, I think Christmas is more….” He paused for a moment, searching for just the right phrase in English. He then screwed up his mouth and carefully, deliberately pronounced  the word, “….scheduled.”

Ah, yes. Welcome to America, Land of the Scheduled. Bring us your unstructured, your untethered and aimless, and we will fill them with classes, commutes, and committees. Idle hands, after all, are the devil’s handiwork.

I was reading a Blog last week that railed against the danger of boredom. Its many warnings included loss of focus and stifled creativity.  And, to be sure, there is some truth to this. Scientific studies have linked high levels of boredom to increased risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease. A study in the journal “Aggressive Behavior” suggests that bored soldiers have a higher risk for antisocial behavior than they do with war trauma experiences. There is even an entire website dedicated to the evils of boredom, called “The Boring institute.”

But alas, dear reader, my busy little hands are so far removed from a state of idleness, I barely have time to imagine what it would be like to have too much time on my hands. To randomly surf the internet? To stare off into space? To waste time not making any choices?

I actually crave boredom. Life gets so frantic, moving at a full-throttle pace trying to manage the job, family activities, domestic chores, committees and boards, church, social events, and some semblance of an online presence, that I feel I must be productive every moment of the day in order to be worthy of myself.  What a bonus is would be to discover a chunk of time when nothing was expected of me, when I am completely off the hook!

Ironically, some of the most productive, spiritually liberating, and creative moments come when we are unstructured – when we are, yes, bored. These are the times when we our mind can wander and we begin to daydream, when our subconscious starts connecting the dots to reveal new insights. It is when we open this window to nothingness that breakthroughs occur, when spontaneous conversations happen. Perhaps even holiness and grace patiently await us in those moments of unplanned inactivity.

Too many of us, however, are addicted to overstimulation, overcommitment and overachieving. Or maybe it’s just that we are simply afraid to be alone with ourselves. So we avoid boredom at all costs.

Boredom, my friends, has its place.

If we need a little nudge to get ahead in the boredom department, we might consider attending the Boredom conference. Founded by James Ward, author of the blog, “I Like Boring Things,” here is a place where boredom enthusiasts get together to discuss subjects such as their tie collections and their sneeze counts. One of the more poignant speakers at this conference, Naomi Alderman, spoke about her struggles as a child to observe the Jewish Sabbath for 24 hours. She told the Wall Street Journal,

“When we learn to tolerate boredom, we find out who we really are.”

Interesting. Maybe if we slowed down for a while and stopped all the frantic activities, we would actually find somebody’s there.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2011 8:38 am

    Great post, Brad. It is so hard not to get sucked into being busy all the time. Meetings, committees, volunteering, substituting, shopping, cleaning… it never ends. And as a parent you want so much for your children to experience all the extra curricular things they can, so they don’t miss out on anything. But they have a lifetime to find out what they like and what they are passionate about.

    I’ve learned that just because things are available doesn’t mean we have to participate in all of them, both adults and children. Just as freedom of speech doesn’t mean we should say everything that comes to mind.

    My kids love to play. They love each other. I can’t imagine signing them up for all kinds of other activities and taking that down time away from them. I think in the long run they’ll be happier, more creative, and have more energy and focus. That’s not to say that we don’t participate in occasional activities. They do one session of gymnastics in the spring, play soccer in the fall and ride horses in between. They are happy with that, and so are we.

    Now, if I could just figure out how to get a nap into the daily schedule…

    • January 8, 2011 8:36 am

      Ginny, I think what you are saying is that it’s important to say NO once in a while! My girls are a little older now, but I remember that pressure of wanting them to have all the possible experiences in the world, and also to make sure they get really good at something. Of course, that would take away that free playtime. Which I remember having plenty of wnen I was a child.

      I think we did the right balance for our kids, too. The only thing we forced was eight years of piano lessons (and they do thank us now!! 🙂 Otherwise we tried to give them space to move in and out of activities, and to stick wiht only the ones they liked.

  2. January 7, 2011 8:43 am

    Having lived overseas in a third world country, I came to value being unscheduled. People take precedence over schedules in these cultures, and I miss that now that I am back in the States! Thank you for this post.

    • January 8, 2011 8:42 am

      Yes, it’s amazing the differene in perceptions of time when you travel to other countries. None seem to be so rushed and obssessed with productivity as we are.

  3. January 7, 2011 9:31 am

    I won’t gavel on here… Boredom is the Tool for Creativity to Thrive!
    and your houseguest couldn’t have phrased it better… with held held low,
    we have become players in this crazy game of Hallmark Holiday’s that it’s reach has
    come to Christmas and Easter as well. “Gotta Have It”, could’t make it’s point, if not for
    the American Way! :-((

  4. January 7, 2011 9:58 am

    “some of the most productive, spiritually liberating, and creative moments come when we are unstructured”

    I whole-heartedly agree with that sentiment. It may be a matter of semantics in our differing viewpoints. I actually think we agree a lot more than not. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • January 8, 2011 8:52 am

      Yes, Tony, I agree that we are approaching the same thing from different vantage points. But your post was what got me thinking about the other side of the coin! It’s funny how blogs can do that – mean one thing, but we take something out of it from another perspective completely.

      Thanks for coming back to check on this post!

  5. January 7, 2011 2:35 pm

    I understand this. I spent Christmas in a forced sort of boredom. It was good for me, and as glad as I am to be back to work on the things that are hanging over me, I am making sure to schedule in a little time for boredom.

  6. January 7, 2011 4:29 pm

    I think that boredom actually encourages creativity. I’ve seen it happen to my kids, especially when they were little. Of course, with my son, a little boredom has also led to some fairly dangerous solutions for getting un-bored.

  7. January 7, 2011 5:57 pm

    I really, really like this idea. Or at least, to have structure with the freedom of sudden unstructured-ness…without panicking about it. Today I was on the verge of a migraine and had to put everything on hold (i.e., throw the schedule out the window) in order to keep the migraine at bay. It worked. In the boredom, I got well again.
    *whew*

  8. January 7, 2011 6:08 pm

    being bored is being unsatisfied. sometimes it comes with a
    lack of incentive.
    it’s okay to sit with that for awhile,

    but, it is much more healthy to think in terms of choice.
    making a choice to do something a certain way.

    i find bored different from unstructured, in which a person can
    be satisfied with what is, along with being open to unplanned
    moves, conversation and thought.

    if anyone slows down, and gets off the highway. the highway might go on
    without you. however, the back road can bring on something just as
    meaningful as trying to keep a place in line.

    we don’t really hold a place in line anyway.
    that is the truth we don’t want to hear.
    others will go on ahead of us, to who knows where.
    they will go there anyway.
    someone will take our place.
    maybe our place was not that great anyway.

    we build our own meaning
    and hold it as tight as we can
    all the while missing
    what means the most

    • January 7, 2011 6:13 pm

      Wow…yes, what she said ↑

    • January 8, 2011 6:27 pm

      Maybe you should have written this post.

      I think you hit the nail on the head, getting at something I failed to pick out, which is the “unsatisfied vs. satisfied,” or “Bored vs unstructured” distinction.

      I just love the highway/back road analogy. Even just reading your line about getting of the road, that it will go on without you, made me a little nervous (I don’t want to miss out on anything!!) And then you come back with that beautiful reference to the back road.

      You are a wise woman.

      Way to go, Nance.

    • January 11, 2011 8:20 am

      I agree with you Nancy. Boredom and unstructured are not synonyms.

    • January 20, 2011 10:28 am

      Insightful response to a great post, Nancy.

      I don’t mind missing out on something, as long as I don’t know about it.

  9. January 8, 2011 3:33 pm

    A big “amen!” from the author of Not So Fast: Slow-Down Solutions for Frenzied Families. 🙂

    I find that an overly or fully scheduled life leaves little room for imagination, creative freedom, and that connect the dots experience that can reveal new insights, as you say (looking forward to reading your link).

    I prefer the freedom of a focused yet flexible life that allows a little mental, emotional and spiritual breathing room.

  10. January 9, 2011 11:33 pm

    More amen! We try to drive daydreaming out of our children and stomp on their creative and flexible minds and hearts. Stupid Puritans and their workaholism. It’s a nasty infection here in America. Hooray for boredom!

  11. January 9, 2011 11:39 pm

    The second time today I’ve thought of the semi circle Lifeshape, and the rhythm of rest and pruning. One of my words for the year is simplify. I’m wondering if they’re not all somehow related.

    May have to re-read Greg Cootsona’s book, “Say Yes to No!”

  12. January 13, 2011 6:53 am

    Sometimes I think we are afraid to have time and space to think and reflect. And I agree that boredom allows room for creativity. I enjoyed this post. Thanks for your thoughts.
    Kath

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