Wednesday, June 2, 2010

in defense of boredom

The past couple of years, I've had my students read The Boston Globe article "The Joy of Boredom" by Carolyn Y. Johnson. I love this article. If she'd been speaking from a pulpit, I would have been waving my hand and shouting "Amen, Sister!" (And I am not a hand-waving-"Amen, Sister"- shouting kind of gal).

What I began realizing was that many of my students had a different childhood than mine. We didn't have a television for years and when we got one, I watched "Little House on the Prairie" with my mom after school. Consequently, I know nothing about most of the old 80s and 90s sitcoms my husband references: small price. And then I began realizing that my students are enjoying an adolescence that is very very different than mine. While I had access to a home computer and Internet through high school, I didn't own a cell phone until I was twenty-three (I know!). And I wasn't interested in an iPod until I realized treadmill running sans NPR meant counting steps minutes laps, and imagining whirrs and thumps in my treadmill motor that weren't there. But today, the majority of my juniors have mobiles, Blackberries, iPods - and sometimes all three tucked in their pockets. Constantly plugged in, sucking down text messages and song bites from the sky.

So I make my students read Johnson's article, partly because I want to know what they think of her ideas. I don't think they were all waving their hands and shouting "Amen, Sister!" And that's okay.

Last week, as part of our unit on technology - specifically, our personal use of and daily relationship with technology - we had a Break Up Day. If students wanted to participate, they did so by spending one whole day without _____. They sacrificed Blackberries, iPods, Internet, television, their laptops. I gave up Internet and didn't feel too much of a pinch, except that I compulsively troll news websites and Break Up Day meant I had no non-news to chew on.

I didn't find myself bored without Internet, but I have continued to think about the ideas in Johnson's article and what I want my time and mind to look like. Granted, I am not so dependent on a mobile or Internet that my day is defined by constant texting or FB updates. Granted, I spend more downtime reading books than computer screens. But still. I could stand to quiet my mind further.

Elizabeth Gilbert talks about learning to meditate in Eat Pray Love. She talked about how the practice of stilling and focusing your mind and spirit isn't limited to one religion. When I pray, it is often in short breaths, little sentences winged toward God. When I pray, I often forget to practice being still so I can also listen. In "The Joy of Boredom" Johnson clearly illustrates all the ways our minutes are taken from us: we give our time away to short bursts of distraction. Perhaps it is a leap to say that limiting our distractions and embracing a bit of boredom may actually lead to a more meditative state. But at the very least, letting our minds be bored for awhile may open the way for new ideas and insights.

One of my favorite quotes from Johnson's article: There is a strong argument that boredom -- so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness -- is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.

Isn't it though?


Kate said...

When I was in grad school, I craved nothing more than to just be bored. That feeling that you have nothing pressing to do, and you can just sit. In fact, I appreciate it much more now, since I have experienced life wihtout boredom, than I ever thought possible.

Angela and David Kidd said...

Like Kate, I also crave boredom these days. Sometimes I only get it at work (ha!). Thanks for the link to the article. Very good read.