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In Praise of Boredom

bored

I didn’t have cable television until I was in the second grade. I remember it clearly. It was February, 1984. I walked down the hill from the school I attended just two blocks away in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. As I arrived at home, my mother greeted me outside and told me about our new acquisition.

I was ecstatic. No more fidgeting with rabbit ears. No more clicking the switch to alternate between VHF for the channels that came in fairly clearly, and UHF for everything else. No more sitting with my ear almost pressed against the plastic speaker panel, turning the tuning knob with aching fingers for thirty minutes while using my body’s own unique electromagnetic field to help improve (if only barely) the latest episode of Transformers, so riddled with static that, were I not so obsessed with robots at that age, I would have just given up.

I headed up the stairs to our apartment and promptly binge-watched Nickelodeon until my mother sent me to bed.

What followed was a predictable, years-long tryst with the one-eyed monster. From Dungeons & Dragons (the cartoon) to Danger MouseVoltron, Tranzor-Z, The Mighty Orbots, M.A.S.K., and an entire host of shows based almost entirely on their toy-lines, I was an 80s-cartoon addict. And without the time-shifting capabilities made available with the advent of the DVR fifteen years later, I was at the beck-and-call of my television, showing up on time, every time, or I’d miss my favorite shows.

My mother wised up fast, instilling daily time limits. These were relaxed on Saturday mornings, when my brother and I would get up early and run into the living room in our underwear before the sun was up, fighting over blankets as we settled in to get our fix before my parents were awake. We never had sweetened cereals, so we’d load our cornflakes with sugar from the bowl and watch until we got kicked outside, or the programming changed over to something boring, whichever came first.

For all the television watching we did, we spent a lot of time, and most of our summers, doing other things. I took swimming lessons at the lake. I played outside with my brother and our friends, cutting secret tunnels through forsythia and lilac bushes, climbing trees, riding bikes, and building traps in the yard to snare our imaginary enemies. We’d build forts wherever we could assemble the materials, whether it was by the back garden or in our living room, where we’d make them from blankets, couch cushions, and the sheets of wood paneling samples my dad would bring home from work. We traded Garbage Pail Kids through the fence with our neighbors, and would walk to the store to buy Bonkers candy or Lik-M-Aid.  In the winter, we would sled down the slope of our yard and over the jump off the four-foot high rock wall into the street, before curving down the road as far as our courage would take us. I’d make radio shows with cassette tapes on our Zenith stereo system, recording music from my father’s vinyl collection or just talking into the chrome and plastic microphones tethered to the giant machine by threads of shiny black polymer cord.  I drew pictures. I wrote stories. I read books.

I am a member of perhaps the last generation to remember what life was like before the Internet and cell phones. My frequent trips to the public library led me to master the card catalog and Dewey Decimal System, and I devoured books like they were going out of style. In my exploratory jaunts around our small town, everything — my school, our parish, the grocery store, the library, my friends’ houses, the appliance store where we’d beg for refrigerator boxes to play in — was within walking distance. If I needed to get in touch with my mother I’d have to find a pay phone and hope I had some change. I went pretty much everywhere by myself, despite my young age, and it worked out just fine.

 

These days, things are different. My children have access to technology I could only dream of when I was a kid. The computing power in my phone is exponentially greater than the giant desktop PC my parents bought when I was ten. The Internet, an ever-expanding panoply of devices, and asynchronous streaming media have made watching the clock so you didn’t miss your favorite show seem quaint. The video games available now have graphics more realistic than the big-budget movies we watched as kids, let alone what could be loaded on the bricks of deceptively-labeled plastic slotted into our wood-paneled Atari 2600 consoles.

It’s never been easier to lose yourself completely in the glow of a screen and not even come up for air. The patience required by a programming schedule or the antics required to get a good signal or the setting up a VCR to record or the need to learn MS-DOS commands has been replaced with the ease of always-on entertainment piped through beautiful high definition displays and touch screen navigation so simple that my 18-month old can use them effortlessly. Our machines have simultaneously become more powerful and more simple to use, and their shiny interfaces awash in a rainbow of dazzling colors make them as attractive to our kids as the now-extinct stores full of barrels of penny candy were to us.

I am not anti-technology. But something is very wrong with the slavish immersion brought on by our device-addled world. As adults, we hypocritically lament the way everyone always has their face buried in their phone just as a text comes in that we reflexively reach to answer.

But for our children, it’s even worse.

As parents, it’s way too easy to let devices babysit our kids. I work from home. When I’m on a deadline and have work to do, it’s almost a relief when my three-year-old comes to me, sent as an emissary from his older siblings who have calculated that his cuteness will add potency to his request, and asks me with big eyes, “Can we watch something?”

Yes. I think. Please. I have work to do and I can’t take the frenetic symphony of destruction you’re all engaged in if I’m ever going to finish.

“Yes.” I say. “But only for a little while.” It no sooner leaves my lips than I see it for the lie it is. I have a lot to do. I will lose track of the time. They will be in front of the damn screen for hours. And I will live with the guilt, just so I can sit in front of mine, doing what need to do. Or think I need to do.

 

This year, as school wound down and summer vacation approached, I warned my kids I was done with letting them live under the radiant tyranny of electronics. I was willing to brave the constant furtive pleas to “watch something,” or “play iPad,” or “play computer”. I was willing to put up with the incessant, whining complaint that every parent loathes: “BUT I’M SO BORED.”

Whether for our children or simply for ourselves, we must remember something that as a digital culture we seem to have lost sight of: boredom is not some affliction to be avoided, but rather a gift to be embraced. A mind unencumbered by external stimulation is the perfect environment for creativity to flourish. Imagination is a thing that happens when the electricity goes out.

When our minds are overloaded by constant stimulation, they lose their natural capacity to do what they do best: make stuff up. They become lazy and elastic, distending to accommodate the glut of  easy-to-digest input we gorge them on. We have to get through the initial phantom pain being disconnected a remote or a screen to get in touch with that massive computer we have between our ears. We need to sit in silence, not just to contemplate God and the beauty of His creation, but to participate fully in our own roles, given to us by him, as co-creators.

Where are the great sculptors, painters, and musicians of the 21st Century? Where are our Caravaggios and Bouguereaus, our Michaelangelos and Berninis, our Mozarts and Palestrinas?

Playing Call of Duty or Candy Crush. Binge-watching Netflix. Staring at Facebook. Tweeting. Instagraming. Watching funny videos on YouTube.

We all have our preferred distractions. And in moderation, most of them are perfectly fine. But moderation is not something many of us are very good at. It’s why most of us, myself included, are overweight and out of shape. We sit like Pavlov’s dog, clicking the mouse button and salivating as we await our dopamine hit, always looking for the next high.

We demand to be entertained.

I once read a quote from a famous novelist who, when considering the reasons for his success, wrote:

I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.

It’s something that has stuck with me over the years. I still spend way too much time online, which is, I suppose, an occupational hazard for a publisher of things on the Internet. And I do draw inspiration from television, movies, and social media, though I see them as resources providing diminishing returns. When possible, I try to spend the time I am in front of a device creating something, rather than consuming it. Writing. Designing. Building a website. The website you are reading this on right now was put together in the hours that I would have, just a few years ago, whittled away playing computer games.

These days, I hope that at the very least my growing self-awareness of too much time spent staring into screens will lead me to make some positive changes. To sit on my back porch and stare at the trees, even though they do not glow. To lie on the floor and play Legos with my kids. To get back to sculpting and painting and drawing. To go hiking. To go shooting. To get up earlier to pray, before the distractions of the day set in.

My commitment to keep my kids away from devices this summer has waxed and waned. I’m weak, and I’ve failed in holding the line more than I care to admit. It’s the easy road, and who doesn’t want to take that once in a while? In my better moments, I muster up my resolve and remember why I wanted to limit it all in the first place. Today is one of those days.

Right now, I’m pretty sure whoever is upstairs is going to come through the floor any second in a shower of plywood splinters and drywall dust. The baby has a giant spoon, with which he’s pretending to eat a decorative pine cone out of a purple plastic bowl. He’s wearing nothing but a diaper, which makes it easier to clean him in the wake of all the messes he makes. There is distant screaming, which my right brain is automatically scanning for notes of pain, rather than play. The blanket fort I know they are building in the living room is one I will have to clean up. I don’t even want to know how sticky the kitchen floor is right now. Several of the children are now shrieking in delight as they try to catch a small blue and yellow-striped lizard that has somehow found its way into my office. Someone is picking at the keys of the piano. The three year old just got beaned in the head with the remnants of a Nerf gun.

It’s chaotic and distracting, but it’s real. Learning how to play, how to deal with others, how to make up games and build things and deal with messes — it’s all part of growing up. They’ve only asked me five or six times this morning to drug them with electronics. So far, they’ve dealt pretty well with my emphatic “No.” Less visceral disappointment. I think they’re merely probing my defenses. It’s a process. They’ve been learning to deal with it all summer, and they keep getting better at it the more they find themselves with no other choice.

Boredom is a gift that bears many-splendored fruit. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get better at making time for it, too.
Originally Published on August 27, 2014.

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