A recent observation: we are a society that hates boredom. After all, why be bored when we have so many entertainment options? If I am in a long line at the post office, I could stand there doing nothing, waiting patiently for the slow, tortoise line to move an inch. Or I could look at my phone and connect to a million entertainment options at the touch of a fingertip.
I can listen to music, a podcast, watch a movie on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or Disney+ or stream a video on Youtube or stream a live sporting event or play a game or read an article or check my social media accounts. All of these options make the time fly by so we don’t have to face the monotony of everyday life. And everyday life without these options can be incredibly boring. I’ve observed with many of my patients that they use screens and entertainment constantly because they are afraid of aloneness, of boredom, of being alone with their thoughts. They will use anything to escape that feeling because underneath it all they are afraid. I can certainly relate to this, especially if you’re feeling depressed or anxious. Who wants to live in the purgatory of the depressed or anxious mind?
But something is lost in a society that needs to constantly be stimulated. As others have suggested boredom is essential to creativity. I think about writing right now, typing on my computer. How did I come up with the idea to write this? I sat on the subway yesterday on my ride home. Usually, I would do a crossword puzzle or read a book. But yesterday I just sat there with nothing to do. I tried to meditate, stay with the moment, but as it is wont to do, my mind began to drift. Before I knew it I thought this blog and started thinking about ideas, and I found myself reflecting on my boredom. And now I am here typing this article.
Of course, nothing about what I say is groundbreaking. There are countless stories of artists using boredom for their creativity. I think of one of my favorite poets, Frank O’Hara. While he worked at the MOMA in the 1950s, he wandered midtown Manhattan during his lunch, as a way to stimulate his creativity. He could have searched for easy office pleasures and chatted with someone or read a magazine. But O’Hara knew that he needed his mind to wander in order to make connections for his poems. During his walks, he had no headphones or iPhones, or any other distraction because they had not been invented yet. He just walked and observed and wrote some beautiful poems. (“Steps” in particular is a favorite of mine). Of course, it could be argued that Midtown Manhattan is anything but boring. But I think that misses the point. Creativity needs a large meadow for the sheep to roam. Enclose the space of the mind too much, and we lose something.
And as many poets have suggested boredom could be viewed as a deficiency in how we see the world. As Rilke once said, “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”
There is much truth to this. I am often amazed at how often people miss the wonders of existence. Trees, for example, have become holy to me, windows into the divine spirit right before eyes. I don’t see them that different than a church. They are temples in themselves. They have their own organic, harmonious beauty, breathing and growing and dying all at once. I have spent many any afternoon, staring at the barks of trees, the structure of branches, the gentle, undulating fall of the leaves to the ground in autumn. There is a divine dance happening here, that I feel blessed to witness.
I realize that this is quite a sentimental view of trees. I can hear someone one of my friends in my head saying, “dude, they are just trees.” On one level that’s right. But on another level, maybe the spiritual is right in front of us and we miss it because we are too busy being entertained and not being bored. Maybe we are too busy running away from our feelings and our senses for easy pleasures. I say this without judgment. God knows, I spend too much time on my phone and watching television. But I also need to reset and be mindful of the wonders of existence. If I don’t, the days fly by without any real joy or connection. And what is life without those things?