The Value of Boredom
I’ve been trying to remember what we used to do in-between things—in the car, in a plane, before dinner, after work, in the bathroom, waiting for a bus, in our rooms without TVs, phones, or computers.
My partner and I took off in August for an 80-day trip through Europe. Our venture has been full of cheap but exquisite food (falafel worth traveling to Berlin—yes, Berlin—for, fist-sized potato dumplings that disintegrate in your mouth, a tear-inducing lamb burger with an Asian flair), cheap Airbnbs, sickness, two Osprey backpacks (mine heavier than his), trains, planes, ferries, old friends, new friends, cheap beers, museums, and no phone plans.
Europe is littered with wi-fi, and the scattered service has been plenty for navigation purposes. But it’s the in-between spaces that have demanded re-calibration and a harsh recognition of how strong my impulse is to grab my phone at the slightest hint of a lull.
Before I go on, we have to discuss the “being on your phone” move. As a woman who has done quite a bit of solo travel, I know all-too-well that being “on your phone” can be a well-planned move to circumvent unwanted conversation. The first time I traveled abroad I did so through a study abroad program. One evening, well after I had moved into my flat at Queen Mary, University of London, I went to watch the sunset on a hill a mere block away from my lodgings. On my walk back to my flat, a man pedaled up to me on his bike and struck up a conversation. Not wanting to offend, I engaged him in this conversation. He asked for my number, and again, being the girl who didn’t want to hurt any one’s feelings, I acquiesced. Then things turned. He started demanding that I get on his bike: motioning to the seat, trying to grab my arm. I said no. He kept gesturing, grabbing my arm, and started to raise his voice. I said no again, and just turned and ran. It was bizarre. There were plenty of people around, the sun had just set, and yet the interaction was quick enough for things to carry on as usual.
I’m a fan of the hyper-vigilant phone use, especially with headphones in and music off, to avoid confronting a man who demands your time and conversation. I’ve warded off plenty of similar interactions by pretending to not hear—which is a much easier farce to commit to when it appears that you’re focused on something else. And yet, truth be told, despite my work in grad school with feminist theorists and theologians, despite my strong belief that women don’t owe men their time or flattery, if I am in the middle of an unwanted conversation, I often find myself resorting back to giving out my number to avoid rejecting someone. Call it what you want (courtesy or patriarchy), but I’m sick of it.
But now I’m traveling with a man, and I’m relieved. There are times I’ve been nervous, but all-in-all catching transportation in the middle of the night, or simply watching the sunset, is far less threatening. So the phone-tricks haven’t been necessary. (As a general rule, men respect other men’s women.) In these in-between moments, without any real reason to appear occupied, I’ve become quite bored.
I have to admit something. I’m not a “follow your dreams” person, at least not in the way we talk about “following your dreams.” Here’s the long and short of it: the narrative around following your dreams is one that reads to me as entitled and self-centered. So many questions about what you want, not so much about how what you want affects people who are not you. The pressure to “follow your dreams” becomes an impossible standard in world with a quickly changing job market and skyrocketing housing costs. This is not to say that you should commit your life to doing something you hate or even something that’s “practical” (whatever the hell that means).
I’m more of a: “Think deeply on what matters to you, on what privileges/resources have been given to you, and on who you are as an individual and in community, then give time and attention to those parts of you. Get to know the things that make you come alive. Accept that the path is not straight, and that more will be revealed to you in time. If you must, come up with a dream when it reveals itself to you. Don’t rush” type person.
Not so catchy.
So what does this have to do with boredom? It’s that the shift from “following your dreams” to grounding your life in a sense of who you are becoming is a shift from the flashy to the slow. And the slow is boring; but the boring makes up the worthwhile.
There are things I love that are instantly gratifying (baking cookies and stuffing my face with cookie dough as part of the process), but there are so many things I love to do (write essays, construct dialogues, parse poetry, go for long runs) that are chalk-full of dull moments. But it’s these things—the not-quite-lucid Catherine Keller, the luminosity of Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the pain-staking close reading of Plath’s Ariel, the hours spent preparing to facilitate an interfaith dialogue, the hike eight miles up a mountain in the rain and fog—that have shaped me.
When we devote our time to something, we are asking it to shape us. In the best case scenario, the time we spend in-between things on Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, Snapchat, etc. isn’t wasting the time we allotted for work or gym or pleasure. But even if it’s taking up only the in-between-time, it’s still shaping us. And beyond shaping us, it’s making it more difficult to focus on the worthwhile when the worthwhile becomes boring.
And the worthwhile is more boring than sexy.
If we learn to have a bit more staying power and a higher tolerance for the boring, we’ll be able to find ourselves in more meaningful tasks, on a more grounded path, and doing worthwhile work. I’m writing this last section on my second day back in the United States, and, to be honest, my first day was full of watching Michelle Wolf’s The Break on Netflix, baking cookies, and a frail attempt to accomplish a few things in the afternoon. I went to bed wishing I had accomplished more, trudged through more of the book(s) I’m reading, or edited my next podcast episode. I’m saying this because it’s hard, even after months of limited phone use, to be bored.
But let’s try it together. Next time you find yourself scrolling through the social media app of your choice, take a second, put it down, and be bored.
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