The Peril of Boredom

Posted: August 9, 2006 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy

I overheard a mother at a bus stop trying to interest her son in the video iPod she was carrying, apparently loaded with the usual kid shows. He was having none of it, though he wasn’t causing any disruption or disturbance, while she was in effect a drug pusher. The scene got me thinking about how we soothe our boredom, especially that of children.

Almost every parent insists that children’s unrelenting need for both attention and stimulation is exhausting. Given the tools at hand, it’s inevitable that parents use various means of pacification, increasingly electronic distractions. Some parents recognize that plopping the kid(s) in front of the TV means selling their children down the river of advertising (training them as rapacious consumers), and for some, there’s a sense of guilt. Lately, kids have portable electronic distractions (e.g., GameBoys and iPods) so that even the relative wholesomeness of summer camp is no longer free of electronics. And it’s bleeding into adulthood. Never mind the countless hours routinely forfeited to TV; now a gaming system, an Internet connection, a cell phone, a DVD collection, and a BlackBerry also clamor for time and attention. Workouts, rush hour commutes, plane rides, and virtually any idle time must now be complemented by an iPod or DVD. Electronics makers must be rolling their hands and twirling their mustaches, having convinced most of the population to be plugged in at all times, just as soft drink purveyors convinced previous generations that a meal isn’t complete without a soft drink.

So what’s with the cavernous emptiness of boredom that screams to be filled, even if only with the most banal of stimulation? Why is it so difficult to be content in silence, alone with our own thoughts? Like the T-Rex that can only sense movement in its field of vision, we’re evolved to notice and seek change rather than stasis, which has turned into a fetish for novelty. Many of us are also so ill-equipped to use our own creativity as a source of self-amusement, whether it be writing, singing, or even thinking, that we must instead turn our attentions outward and, in our general laziness, gather whatever stimulation is most readily available. With our current electronics options, much of that stimulation is empty of meaningful content, such as the graphics on a news program that do nothing but temporarily tantalize the eyes, or the variety of new musical styles that are all hook and beat and thump.

It used to be that when a child complained “I’m bored …” to a parent, an aphorism was delivered: “Boredom is the mark of an uncreative and impoverished mind.” The implication of that rebuke was that, by using the imagination, one could dream up things to do that would provide amusement and generate enthusiasm. Perhaps some parents still instruct children that way, but in public at least, the complaint “I’m bored” is usually interpreted as a fire alarm, sending parents scrambling to find something to quench the fire before some mischief sets in. The restless mind of youth transforms into the mind at rest, like the effects of a depressant. And the habit is easily formed: the expectation that stimulation is done to a person rather than something a person does for him- or herself. Over time, one effect is that one’s enthusiasms are dominated by outer directedness, which is to say that we cathect with celebrities, consumer goods, sports teams, alcohol, and drugs, all of which release us from the torments of being ourselves.

UPDATE: I just came across this new product. It’s a shopping cart with seating for kids and a TV screen. For the love of all things holy, don’t look away from the TV screen!!

  1. grasshopper says:

    Well put, but I would take it further. If you let a child whine about being bored for as short a time as 15 minutes, he’ll find something that interests him. With an adult? The habits are more ingrained. Then, too, adults may have a good deal more to fear if they suddenly find themselves alone with themselvses no relief scheduled. Who knows what memories may loom up out of the dark? What chilling embarrassements may haunt them?
    Not so long ago I heard a man screeching into his cell that he was just this minute crossing Madison Avenue. Four more steps, no, two more, and he’d reach 56th St!
    I walked directly in front of him to see his face: he had to be joking, practicing a comedy sketch. He wasn’t. grasshopper

  2. I’m sorry to admit that this post really hit home as far as I’m concerned. I am definitely one of those people that needs to be connected at all times. I go a little crazy when I accidentally walk out of the house without my iPod because it means that I won’t be able to listen to my audiobooks when sitting in traffic. If I have a spare minute while waiting in line or something, I have to punch out a quick email on my Blackberry. What an exhausting way to live. I might just try to enjoy some silence this weekend!

  3. Topics2blog says:

    Me too, man. I am really hate walking out without ipod, without listening my ebooks, music or something..

  4. Brutus says:

    Thanks for your comments, folks. Obviously, there are those who identify with my view (how sad it is that’s were always plugged in) and those who can’t go without the electronic distractions. YMMV

  5. grasshopper says:

    For me boredom is and always has been (at least as I recall it) a great luxury. When I was a child, I spent long afternoons lying in the grass, doing nothing. As a teenager, I walked aimlessly in every kind of weather because I liked walking, not because I couldn’t get a ride. I never thought of myself as lonely; unhappy, yes, but not because of being alone and idle. Boredom generally led to innumerable emotions both subtle and wild, which were safe if kept to myself.
    Sometimes I developed intense friendships. I wasn’t always bored or always unhappy. But I spent enough time nurturing my emotional life so that I missed out on almost all of my era’s pop culture. True, there wasn’t so much of it, but I tuned out what there was.
    When I would tell my children to take full advantage of their boredom because adult life was hectic, I doubt they paid me much heed. But as young adults they both enjoy being alone more than most people of any age. Their iPods are essential but then so is mine when I’m in transit, even walking: NYC streets are turbulent.
    Yet waiting in a doctor’s office or even in line if the atmosphere isn’t intrusive, I savor every blank moment.

  6. kulturcritic says:

    When is the last time you were SERIOUSLY around a two year old boy? LOL

    • Brutus says:

      You’re not to first to imply (humorously) that kids practically require some form of distracting to quell their boundless energy. And no, I don’t spend lots of time around young kids.

  7. kulturcritic says:

    Well, Brutus… I am 58 and have a 2 year old son. The concrete jungle is impossible with him; he is much better when we are at the dacha, in the forest. HAHAHA

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