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January 4, 2010
Meredith Whitmore
It's Good to Be Bored

It's Good to Be Bored

When I hear people say they "get bored easily," my tendency is to think that they feel a bit superior to the rest of us. Sophisticated. Maybe even pious. Why? Because in American culture, getting bored quickly is practically held synonymous with having advanced acumen and/or being a fascinating, very important (and therefore very busy) human being in general.

It's almost as if we believe that "achieving" effortless ennui must mean we are savvy and cosmopolitan enough to have "been there, done that, thrown away the T-shirt."

Yet, paradoxically, we constantly flee boredom by toting iPods, cell phones and a host of other electronic gadgets or diversions. A few years ago, Motorola even coined a word for the brief moments when (gasp!) we're without a device to distract us from inactivity: microboredom.

But boredom—micro or macro, of the common variety or the snobbish—isn't the enemy it's made out to be. And stillness, which we incorrectly link with boredom, definitely isn't.

The Blessing of Boredom
One of my old professors put it like this: "If you're bored, it's your own fault." Apart from the fact that he said this in a statistics class—and was therefore absolutely wrong under those brutal circumstances—in the real world he's generally correct. Boredom is our own responsibility because there's always something we can ponder, imagine, laugh at or pray about.

Contrary to popular belief, we don't get bored because we don't have enough interesting things to do; we get bored because we cannot connect meaningfully with and focus on anything at all. In our overstimulated, overcaffeinated, hyperentertained, multitasking world our modern minds simply can't land on a thought or subject long enough to engage and do it justice.

So we mistakenly dismiss it all as "boredom."

I've even heard people laugh and say things like, "When I try to think, I fall asleep." Really, though, what's so funny about that? If the unexamined life isn't worth living, as Socrates suggested, then what are we actually doing with our days if we never pause to soul-search?

Why we avoid doing so is obvious, by the way. Our inability—or sheer refusal—to reflect stems from a subconscious fear of facing ourselves. Stillness practically forces introspection, and most of us would rather have a fifth root canal than confront the scary giants within. As modern philosopher and professor Dallas Willard says, "Silence is frightening because it strips us as nothing else does, throwing us upon the stark realities of life."

But stillness is actually a biblical command (Psalm 46:10 entreats, "Be still and know that I am God"). So just because we might want to avoid those stark realities of life, doesn't mean we should. We are doing ourselves a disservice, and our spiritual lives detriment, if we never slow down to think deeply.

A quick test to establish your personal stillness quotient:

1. Do you feel restless or frustrated when a TV or car radio—or some other sort of noise—isn't in the background?

2. Can you sit and do nothing for an hour or two without feeling guilty, bored or frustrated?

3. Can you be by yourself for a whole day and enjoy it?

A Personal Journey—Inward
When I lived in Africa (I was a teacher in Ethiopia), I was forced to explore these questions and many more like them. Electricity was intermittent at best, and in a dark, secluded house, isolated from television, the Internet, and at times even phone calls and friendships, I gradually discovered something: Stillness really is fantastic. And though I am nothing close to monk-like, so are candlelight, prayer and pondering.

Though silence felt foreign to me at first—I don't think I'd been mentally or physically still since kindergarten—I learned to appreciate the opportunity self-examination gave me to sort through emotions, thoughts, questions, loneliness and painful experiences. Solitude also gave me a chance to be creative and envision new possibilities for relationships, art, work and solutions to problems. Besides all this, I prayed. A lot. And as I did, it struck me that Jesus Himself retreated from the busyness of his life and ministry to be still.

It's as Suzanne Vega sings, "Solitude stands in the doorway/And I'm struck once again by her black silhouette/By her long cool stare and her silence/ … And she says, 'I've come to set a twisted thing straight'/And she says, 'I've come to lighten this dark heart.'"

Learning how to be tranquil actually helped me to be more dynamic spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and socially, since in stillness I reconnected with my previously disjointed self. But most important, I reconnected with God. Times of contemplation allow us to let our spiritual and emotional dust settle, so to speak, in order to make sense of our relationships, problems, blessings and questions.

A few candles, a useless television and a far-flung African neighborhood actually served to lighten my dark heart. I can see that now. You, however, don't have to go any farther than powering down your handhelds, switching off the computer (after you finish reading this article, of course) and "forgetting" to charge your phone for a few days. Turn down the peripheral noise, be motionless despite the chaos that is the world around you, and do some potent pondering for a change.

As one who has faced her self without the warm security blanket of external activity, I guarantee you that as alien and uncomfortable as stillness can feel at first, learning how to practice it is well worth the effort.