Boredom

June 27, 2004 | 13 comments
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I recently returned from a teaching stint in Europe, and this morning I was thinking about a small incident that prompted some Gospel-related thoughts … not about war. Two of my children and I were traveling from Bath to London, and we decided to take the scenic route, which allowed us to stop at Stonehenge on the way. We were all quite enamored with the ancient structure, which I found oddly inspiring. My children (ages 10 and 8) listened intently to their self-guided tour recordings and asked interesting questions. They were genuinely engaged.

Ten minutes after leaving Stonehenge, still traveling in the lovely English countryside, my son (the 8-year-old) remarked, “I’m bored.” This was a fairly regular occurrence during our three weeks in Europe, and in many instances, I was sympathetic. In this case, however, I tried to ignore his implied plea for assistance. We had just seen Stonehenge and we would be in London soon, which should solve any problems with boredom … for a little while.

As we drove further along those country roads and I reflected on my son’s impatience, I realized that he was emulating his father — not in saying “I’m bored,” but in being easily bored. It occurred to me that much of my life involves a search for new experiences. Sometimes those new experiences are to be found in traveling to new places, but they might also be found in reading a new book, finding a new friend, trying a new food, or discovering a new angle on a thorny legal issue. Like a marathon runner addicted to the runner’s high, I am addicted to the high that comes from learning something new.

Of course, we live in an age when such an addiction is easily fed. Technological advances have brought everything in the world closer, and I am feeding at the trough. But I have begun to wonder whether this search for new experiences is altogether good.

Implicit in the search is an acknowledgement that the status quo is inadequate. While it is hard to see the harm in experimenting with a new cheese, experimenting with a new sexual partner is more problematic. My point is that adventurousness may be a world view that is hard to contain. People who object to Times & Seasons perceive this problem. While many of us who frequent these halls have sympathy for Kristine’s notions about “joys and the redemptive possibilities of intellectual engagement” with the Gospel, conscientious objectors see the specter of intellectual apostacy.

All of this is my very roundabout way of saying that I sometimes wish I were more content with the mundane. And I worry about saddling my children with the burdens that accompany my addiction.

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13 Responses to Boredom

  1. Russell Arben Fox on June 27, 2004 at 9:22 pm

    I think the feeling of contentment, of being settled and taking joy in the ordinary, is a great and–these days–increasingly rare gift. It is definitely one worth seeking. There is a downside to being future-oriented, concerned primarily with progress and experimentation and innovation and profit. On the contrary, I think there is something right about the choice to tend to one’s own, rather than always seeking out something new. Joseph Brackett’s Shaker hymn put it best:

    ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free;
    ‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be;
    And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
    ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
    When true simplicity is gain’d,
    To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d;
    To turn, turn will be our delight,
    ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on June 27, 2004 at 9:40 pm

    Sorry; another poem (perhaps my favorite), by William Butlery Yeats. Finding grace in the mundane, God in the sublime, is a great theme:

    I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
    And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

    And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes droping slow,
    Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
    There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
    And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

    I will arise and go now, for always night and day
    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
    While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
    I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

  3. Kevin Barney on June 27, 2004 at 9:49 pm

    One place where I find boredom to be a particular problem is at Church. I regularly am bored out of my gourd there. I always take a book or a journal to read for when I just can’t take it anymore. And I’ve been this way since I was a teenager, if not a child; it seemed that everything everyone said had already been said a hundred times before, and I felt as though I never learned anything. Some people find that kind of an environment to be a comfort, but I find it boring, and it takes a little something of an act of will for me to subject myself to such staggering boredom every week.

  4. Gordon Smith on June 27, 2004 at 10:38 pm

    Thanks for the poems, Russell. I think it is interesting that we both think of “taking joy in the ordinary” as a state of mind that needs to be sought. My assumption has been that the felt need to seek something new is learned, sort of a fallen state, while contentment is the unspoiled state of nature. But given the need for opposition in all things, I wonder if “taking joy in the ordinary” is something that only happens if one first understands boredom.

  5. Aaron Brown on June 27, 2004 at 11:44 pm

    Ditto to Kevin’s comments. And yet, in the last few years, I have found myself very unbored on occasions where I would normally be bored. Those occasions usually arise only when I’m teaching Gospel Essentials, and I feel like a new member or investigator is appreciating something for the first time that I and others have long taken for granted.

    Aaron B

  6. Grasshopper on June 28, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    Hooray! The “Remember personal info” feature is working again!! :-)

    Is it possible to feel contentment and seek something new at the same time? Or are these inherently antithetical feelings?

  7. Matt Evans on June 28, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    At the mission farewell of a friend of mine, his mom said her son had never been bored. She said this was due in part to their family’s treating “I’m bored” as a profanity. I haven’t been bored since.

    I am almost never bored because I manage to create new adventures in my head. If I have a piece of paper, I can draw or write, if I’m driving or waiting in line, I think.

  8. Gordon Smith on June 28, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    Grasshopper, I am thinking of these two concepts as inherently antithetical. Take my silly cheese example. I might like my aged cheddar well enough, but the fact that I go searching for a new brie suggests that I am not content with my cheddar alone. But you seem to have a counter example in mind …?

  9. Gordon Smith on June 28, 2004 at 1:38 pm

    Matt, You seem to be responding to Kevin and Aaron, but I think there is a subtle point here that I would like to make explicit. When I talk of being bored, I am talking about a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo. You seem to experience similar feelings, but overcome them efficiently by creating new adventures in your head. My original post was a minor lament about my perceived need to seek such new adventures.

  10. Grasshopper on June 28, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    Gordon, I suspect that these are not strictly antithetical. It seems to me that seeking for something new can either be a reaction to (against) the old or not. If it is, it is driven by discontent. If not, then not, and therefore not really antithetical to the idea of contentment. I can be happy with my cheddar, even to the point that I would be fine if that were the only thing I had to eat for the rest of my life, but still enjoy and seek out other cheeses.

    (I confess that the above is merely a hypothetical. I like cheddar, but not that much.)

    Another example may also be that the experience which causes us to feel content may also motivate us to something new. For example, I may feel content while I am sitting in the celestial room after a temple session, but that contentment itself may motivate me in a positive way to leave the celestial room and return to the world, hopefully to influence it for the better.

    All that said, I think contentment is good resting place, but a bad stopping place.

  11. Kristine on June 29, 2004 at 9:39 am

    Boredom, especially children’s boredom, is something I’ve thought about a lot. I actually work pretty hard to make sure that there’s space in my kids’ schedules for boredom, because i want them to realize early that the resources for dealing with it are within them, rather than in some external stimulus. We do lots of singing in our house, memorize a lot of poetry (well, OK, at this point we memorize a lot of things that rhyme–”poetry” is maybe a stretch), etc., so that they’ll have things to think about if they get bored. We have a pretty minimalist (by American standards, at least) playroom–blocks, legos, art supplies, musical instruments, a play kitchen, and not much else. They invent their own play, rather than playing with lots of different toys that just do one thing.

    Last week, though, we went to the RS President’s house for a presidency meeting. Her kids are about the same ages as mine, so they played together while we were meeting. Their playroom is very much like a Toys ‘R’ Us store–they have absolutely everything. My kids were in heaven, and spent a lot of time complaining about our “boring,” “stupid” house when we got home.

    Usually, I feel pretty good about our boring,stupid, weird house, but for some reason, this time I’m really wondering–maybe there’s really no reason NOT to look for novelty all the time in a world with as much to offer as post-everything America. Maybe what looks like hyperactivity and thrill-seeking to me (because I’m temperamentally cautious and conservative) is in fact the proper condition of humans in this age, and develops admirable ambition, acceptance of change, information-processing capacity, etc. Maybe “ordinary” doesn’t really exist anymore, and it doesn’t make sense to try to find joy in it.

  12. Gordon Smith on June 29, 2004 at 10:33 am

    Kristine, Perhaps surprisingly, given my initial comments on this topic, I tend to feel the same way about toys. We have never owned video games like Nintendo, X-Box, etc., partly because we didn’t want to incur the costs and partly because I thought my children should be employed in other pursuits. The younger children have a great time with legos and blocks, and I think that is great. Actually, one of the best experiences we have had in this regard was when I was visiting at another law school and we had to leave most of the toys behind. Our older children took up drawing with a passion, and now both of them are quite interested in and good at it.

    I carry around with me an image that I got from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. The image is of Felix Hoenikker, who is cast as the “father” of the atom bomb. He was a man filled with wonder at simple things. His laboratory was filled with ordinary amusements: “The old man had left the laboratory a mess. What engaged my attention at once was the quantity of cheap toys lying around. There was a paper kite with a broken spine. There was a toy gyroscope, wound with string, ready to whirr and balance itself. There was a top. There was a bubble pipe. There was a fish bowl with a castle and two turtles in it.” And he asked child-like questions (“I wonder about turtles. When they pull in their heads, do their spines buckle or contract?”) Without getting into the scientist’s larger role in the book, let me just say that I admire that scientist’s attitude, and I have often thought of him as I have shaped my own life.

    The interesting thing about this scientist for purposes of the present discussion is that he is always searching. Part of my initial lament was aimed at my felt need to find something new, but I am rethinking that. Perhaps it isn’t the search, but the means of searching that is important. With respect to your closing thought, Kristine, it seems to me that means may matter. The ordinary still exists, and finding joy there causes us to ask fundamental questions that evade us when we are distracted by lights, bells, and whistles.

    (Sorry for the long comment. I am avoiding grading.)

  13. Michelle on June 29, 2004 at 12:18 pm

    My kids and I have recently taking up bird-watching. We put up a variety of feeders in our yard, and got a bunch of books from the library to help us identify our visitors. The kids (ranging from 3 to 9) (and I) get ecstatic when a new species turns up. We have a bird-watching journal to record our observations.

    I would consider this activity to be taking joy in the ordinary; on the other hand, if the only bird we ever saw was the sparrow (which in fact makes up at least 90% of our sightings), I think the enthusiasm would have waned by now.

    Do you ever look at the bizarrely rich biodiversity on this planet (300,000 species of beetles??), and think that God, too, was mindful of the boredom issue?