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.

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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.

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6 Responses to “The Benefits of Boredom”

  1. Chuck Manto says:

    Thanks for an interesting treatment on the benefits of peace, rest, and meditation. I was particularly touched by the thought, “when people are conscious but doing nothing… there is greater brain activity in regions responsible for imagining the thoughts and feelings of others.” That is an interesting balance to the constant connections we create with technology that works against connection with each other.

    There remains, similarly, a strong need for us to have more in depth personal connection as part of the concept of Sabbath. Isaiah 56:1-8 reminds us that if we do not take time to really know each other, including those who are alone, outcasts or poorly networked, we miss really experiencing Sabbath. This passage challenges us to check to see if we thoroughly embrace Sabbath rest in our deeper connection with each other instead of only doing Sabbath alone, or filling that time with church activities (or technology) that stunts our opportunities to incarnate ourselves into the lives of each other.

    When we audit our activities together at church, we should be able to ask ourselves: Do the others in the group really know who I am and what my deepest concerns are? Do I know a handful of others and really know their most pressing needs or interests? Am I helping them to meet those needs?

    It seems like resting alone really can help us think about others. It will also be interesting to see how we can “rest together” so that we can discover each other even more. Perhaps, that might mean spending a few hours with each other after services to eat together, talk, etc…, meet for meals during the week… or occasionally go camping. Anyone have other ideas?

  2. John Seel says:

    Holy Islands

    Next to faith itself, O God,
    And the daily grace You shed on me,
    The Sabbath’s Your most precious gift,
    From weekday things to be made wholly free.

    Week in, week out, forever stamped
    The Creator’s claim marked “due”:
    Each seventh day a signpost that
    Every day, all things belong to You.

    For the Sabbath to be truly holy,
    Day of Spirit ‘midst material week,
    Of all things getting and creating
    No thought, no hint are we to speak.

    For You to rest on Creation’s Sabbath
    Demanded meager toil as six days’ travail.
    For us to forbear one day all weekliness
    Even six days’ strength will barely avail.

    Yet if the grit is finally mustered,
    All thoughts of gain and loss swept clear,
    Resolve’s rewards astonish
    That one day inspirits with the pow’r of a year.

    Begin with candleflames rising straight to heav’n,
    Fragrant loaves of freshly baked bread;
    Offer fruit of the vine the richest:
    With all three bless God and the day ahead.

    How each one sanctifies God’s day may differ,
    Among varying paths to Him we climb.
    Yet before God will let Himself rest among us,
    We must become ready by hallowing a space of time.

    Feel God’s slowly approaching Presence
    Once we desist from all work that day.
    An island in time He made us make holy,
    That with us He might rest for a weekly stay.

    What a revelation it is to sense holiness,
    To breathe freshness as His Spirit comes near!
    To feel life at its purest, most powerful
    Rushing back! Yet with silence one does hear.

    What an infusion of life-giving Power!
    Indeed the saving of true life is its goal.
    What irony that one must first use force
    To make oneself free so that one can become whole!

    Yet when the day of Spirit is over,
    Its separation marked clearly by night,
    No pain of tasks foregone burdens us,
    But only surprises with fulfilling light.

    Sabbath’s added soul has now departed,
    Its sojourn having lasted but a day’s space.
    Yet the rays of its gentle light linger,
    Reflected radiance from Sabbath’s grace.

    Now weekliness is once again with us,
    Yet for Sabbath’s Spirit we continue to yearn.
    Those lingering rays can surely be brightened
    If Sabbath’s lesson we do diligently learn.

    Prayer is to each day as Sabbath to each week,
    Islands of quiet freshness floating in noise’s sea,
    Serene moments to be alone face to face with God,
    Holy moments of all worldly thoughts made free.

    To hollow time for prayer day in and day out
    Is more taxing ‘midst the rush of affairs.
    For the Sabbath, resolve to sanctify is required once,
    Over and over again for our daily prayers.

    Our minds are untrained instantly to cease tending
    To what to do next or what has just been done.
    The hardest part of praying is not to set aside time,
    But to collar the mind and stop its unruly run.

    With resolve, with discipline and with practice daily,
    It becomes easier, though never easy, to tame one’s mind.
    What redeems the ever-strenuous exertion
    Is the radiant Presence we can then will it to find.

    Help us sanctify our minds, O God, as we bring ourselves to pray,
    Devoid of all diverting when we seek approach to You each day.
    To create of time a holy island, we beg your shaping hand:
    Bless our concentration so as in Your Presence to stand.

    Let these joyful seasons, O God,
    And our Sabbaths all the year through
    Teach us how to create holy islands
    Of time for us to be with You.

    —Joel Lawrence Fleishmann
    December 1992

  3. Go ahead be “bored”, you’ll be better off. « Dialogo de Derek says:

    […] […]

  4. Tim Patterson says:

    Good reminder to be still and know that He is God, and who I am. Thanks, Mike.

  5. David Wayne says:

    Sadly, it seems that Henrietta Mears’ words that it is a sin to bore a child have reached near canonical status in Christian education circles – at least the ones I run in. That simple quote has been used as justification for many teaching methods I have heard and seen discussed.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    David:

    Yes, there is a degree of irony in the now-iconic belief that it is a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.

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