What’s so bad about being bored?
‘Tis the season to be bored—end of the school year, Senior Slump, and spring fever. Everyone assumes boredom is a bad thing. Now we’re learning that being bored might have some benefits.
Boring didn’t always have a bad name. It comes from the Old English verb borian, “to bore through, perforate” and the Proto-Germanic bor, “to auger.” An augering tool is a two-handled device that bores holes when the two handles are pushed in opposite directions. Boring was understood this way—as an action or a verb; not a noun or a state of affairs implied in boredom. In other words, for the longest time, a category for the condition called boredom simply didn’t exist. As Vizzini liked to say, “Inconceivable.”
The condition of being bored, tiresome, or dull is mentioned for the first time in a 1768 letter, where the Earl of Carlisle mentions his “Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen.” Boring changed from a positive action to a negative state of affairs, according to Patricia Meyer Spacks, author of Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind. This supposedly harmful state of affairs was given sanction with the first citation of “boredom” in the 1852 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary.
That same year, boredom gained a broader audience with the publication of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, a story of the novel-reading middle classes worrying about boredom. By the 1950s, boredom was the bane of human happiness, as depicted in Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. The narrator is a writer who spends the “final Eisenhower years” trying to write the definitive treatise on boredom. It’s pretty boring.
Now we’re learning that boredom is not as bad as many imagine. Boredom may be a highly useful capacity according to some neuroscientists who have begun examining it as an important source of wellbeing. This should catch the attention of the faith community, since wellbeing is what scripture calls shalom. Researchers have also discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing—for example, lying in an fMRI scanner waiting to be given some simple mental task as part of a psychology experiment—there is greater brain activity in regions responsible for imagining the thoughts and feelings of others. This too should catch the attention of the faith community, since considering others is part of fulfilling the Great Commandment. Finally, scientists are discovering how boredom is critical to creativity and innovation. This should matter to the faith community, since what sociologists call innovation, scripture calls renewal. It appears that being bored can be very beneficial.
Since most people are not scientists or spend much time in an fMRI scanner, an easier way to reconsider boredom is taking a weekly Sabbath from the TGIF (Twitter, Google, iPad, Facebook) world. “Think of the inward emptiness of our lives,” Dallas Willard writes, “if we must always turn on” some kind of noise “to make sure something is happening around us.”1 Sabbath means stop. It is braking so that we can bore into our soul. As Nicholas Carr points out in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the ubiquity of the Internet and social media is making it harder for people to stop and dig into difficult literature.2 Without regular and periodic Sabbaths, individuals’ neural pathways become shallow, like the Pittsburgh-area teen interviewed by Maggie Jackson in her book, Distracted: “Personally, I like talking to a lot of people at a time. It kind of keeps you busy. It’s kind of boring just talking to one person cause then like… you can’t talk to anyone else.”3
As the faith community begins to practice the disciplines and treasure the idea of boring, it might appreciate why the verb also means “to auger.” Augers achieve their maximum effect when the two handles are pushed in opposite directions. Faith works the same way in achieving its maximum effect. When two seemingly self-contradictory truths, such as God’s mercy and justice, are pushed in opposite directions, it’s called a paradox. Embracing paradox was once considered essential to flourishing as a Christian. It’s why, in dedicating The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his godchild, Lucy Barfield, C.S. Lewis wrote: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Lewis believed Lucy would flourish if she bore into the paradoxes of the faith.
Finally, as the faith community begins to see the benefits of boring, it might be invited to join the rostrum at Boring 2011. Last December, a group of enthusiasts participated in Boring 2010. Speakers held forth on seemingly dreary diversions such as “The Intangible Beauty of Car Park Roofs.” But journalist and author Naomi Alderman offered perhaps the deepest insight. Her talk was titled, “What It’s Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 15 Hours a Week,” reflections on taking a stab at practicing the Jewish Sabbath. Alderman closed by noting, “When we learn to tolerate boredom, we find out who we really are.” She is close to the truth. It might however be wiser to suggest that when we learn to treasure boredom, we find out who we really are.
1 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1988), p. 202.
2 Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010)
3 Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2008), p. 34.