I Believe in the Importance of Boredom
(This I Believe, 2011)
When I look back on my childhood memories so many that are the most crystalline, or the most comforting, are memories where at the time I thought I was bored. And perhaps I was. Lying on my back staring at the sky because there was no one to play with (and, back then, no DS, no computer games, no Disney Channel)—I am sure I was frustrated and bored. But what I remember now is the verdant scent and springy feel of the grass, the impossible blue of the sky, and yes, that cliché, imagining shapes in the puffy white clouds. And I also recall the feeling of having nothing whatsoever to do and all the time in the world to follow my thoughts anywhere they led me. I would give a lot—a LOT—for that now. I bet you would, too.
And how many High Holidays and Shabbat services did I get dragged to with my parents? I don’t just think I was bored. I know it. But I also know that forever imprinted in my brain is the image of my mother’s hand, which I would hold and study and play with as though it were a book or toy. I’d examine her rings, trace the lines of her palm, follow the road map of her veins. And all the while my brain was busy, on so many levels. Trying to calculate how much longer the torture would continue, of course. But also taking in the sounds and other impressions that would—despite my beliefs, or lack thereof—comfort me to this day. And last but definitely not least, making up stories, working out problems, designing clothing and décor, and, depending on my age, trying to figure out how to meet Shari Lewis or Paul McCartney.
My daughter often tells me she is bored. She says it as soon as she finishes a book, if she can’t start a new one. Or if she is not multitasking, but required to focus her attention on one thing like homework. And she says it for the same reason I did, when there’s no one to play with. She certainly says it at services, although hopefully not tonight. And what’s the first thing she does when the specter of boredom threatens? With something like panic, she reaches for the TV remote, the laptop, the DS, the smartphone. Sometimes two of them at once. And she’s a pretty typical kid, from what I can see. But what I don’t see is kids daydreaming. Oh, one hopes they are doing it in school, but is that really enough? I believe it is exactly when kids are bored, or think they are, that magic happens. The mind wanders. The screen inside lights up. Some synapses spark and connections are made. Or perhaps nothing more happens than a few idle observations on a cumulus. Either way. But I believe that boredom creates critical space: to reflect, to observe, to dream, to ponder, to wonder. And that is an invaluable and endangered commodity.
I like a good sitcom as much as anyone—it used to be how I made my living. And I suppose the gum wrapper or paperclip chains of yesteryear had to give way to Pocket Frogs and MarioCart. But I believe that for their own good, and possibly even for the sake of our future, once in a while, no matter how our kids howl, we have to shut it all down and bring on the boredom.