Nearly every summer, my parents would pack the van with kids and sleeping bags and set out like employed Joads for a cross-country tour. Such was the Hinterland Who's Who summer of a Vancouver kid with parents from Saskatchewan and Ontario. While friends spoke of cottages and camp, I watched every square inch of what lies between B.C. and Toronto whiz past my window. "Enjoy the scenery, children," sang-song my cheerful parents outside Hope, B.C. By the time we hit Alberta - and each other - this had morphed into: "ENJOY THE ****ING SCENERY!"
Was I ever bored? Oh, yes. I assume we all were. A boredom like three weeks in a customs line-up. A boredom that prompted much brother-pinching or, as dark adolescence descended, a seething over-identification with the mountain goats along the Banff highway: "Lonely. Teetering on the edge of the abyss. Hideous feet."
So I am well-versed in boredom and recognize its gruesome affect when I see it, inevitably around dinnertime, as my own kids wander zombie-like toward me to announce: "I'm bored."
"Only boring people get bored!" I cluck. "I should be so lucky to be bored!"
It's true: When I miss those mountain goats and prairie skies, what I really miss is boredom. What is a holiday, really, but the opportunity to pay for boredom? The goal is to reduce the stimulation, mental and physical - to turn off.
The family holiday is a different animal now. Kids in the back are mollified by a digital download. Parents in front listen to the podcast. Cellphones and texts at rest stops. Every inch of disengagement is spackled with diversion. Who, these days, isn't itchy with thaasophobia, the fear and intense hatred of boredom?
But maybe boredom isn't so bad. A study presented at the British Psychological Society this year suggested that boredom can actually make you a better person. Researchers found that boredom signals a lack of engagement in meaningful activities, which forces the bored subject to seek out more meaningful (if not always pleasant) behaviours, such as giving blood or donating to charity. Despite its reputation as isolating and its close proximity to loneliness, boredom may actually be pro-social.
Certainly it's creative. The greatest ideas start nowhere, rooted out of those pauses where the mind has nowhere to go but deep into itself, unearthing the surprise.
It's no coincidence that boredom rose with industrialization: The word first appeared in 1760. Today, as daily life becomes more mechanized and repetitive ("Your call is important to us. Your wait time is 19 minutes."), gadgets and noise buffer the boredom. David Foster Wallace's posthumously published book, The Pale King, is about the bureaucratic monotony of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. At one point, the text splits into two columns like those the tax agents must scan every hour, challenging the reader to experience the true boredom of information overload. (It works!) Wallace knew that our boredom-busting strategies are designed to drown out a lower-register alarm:
"Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract … Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cellphones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down."
By the way, he killed himself.
Wallace is writing about "existential" boredom, if one follows the definition offered in Boredom: A Lively History by University of Calgary professor Peter Toohey. Toohey's "existential" boredom is a bone-deep ennui - meaninglessness as a philosophical position. It's also post-Enlightenment privilege, a side effect of rampant individualism.
He contrasts this variety with simple boredom, the mundane and repetitive displeasures of a bus queue or the birthday party of a child not your own. But neuroscientists regard simple boredom as an "adaptive emotion" that serves a critical function: a survival instinct that allows people to flee toxic situations in avoidance.
Boredom matters because it makes room for its contrast - the burning joy of being alive. Technology creates the illusion that every experience has been had and all information is available with a click. A friend of mine and veteran high-school teacher recently told me that he finds students have changed in only one significant way: They appear less curious, even in the age of information. Perhaps they're not sufficiently acquainted with boredom.
On our summer vacation this year, I think I will insist that my six-year-old put down Angry Birds and stare out the window at the ***damned scenery. I want him to learn that around the corner of boredom lies bliss. As Schopenhauer wrote, "boredom is just the reverse side of fascination: Both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other."
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