Until coronavirus, I didn’t know how viciously insufferable boredom is for me.
In the normal course of events, I’ve always had plenty to do: working with my clients, writing my books with my editor and writing coach, going to my Pilates class, and visiting family or friends, just to name a few.
But suddenly, last year, on top of all the other stresses and costs of the pandemic, we had serious lockdowns. For some time, I wasn’t allowed to venture more than about a hundred meters from my home unless it was to go to the supermarket, doctor, or pharmacy. Cut off from my usual routine, I made an unpleasant discovery: I am a person susceptible to boredom and its wickedness.
And that’s what I want to talk to you about today: what boredom is and the important lessons we can learn from it.
How scared are you of having nothing to do?
There are people in this world – personally, I find them quite impressive – who can sit still for an hour or two and not feel bored, lonely or frightened. Some go to ashrams in India truly just do nothing but sit for hours in silence, seeking peace.
At the other extreme are those whom I would describe as doers. No matter where they are or what is going on, they always find tasks to fill their time: something that needs fixing; food that needs to be prepared; tidying up that needs to be done; long hours at work; hobbies like crafting or playing an instrument. They’re just plain busy.
There’s nothing wrong with being a doer. Some people prefer to be active; it’s just how they like to experience their day to day.
However, there are danger signs to watch out for if you’re worried that your business is not just a simple preference – when it’s not just that you enjoy your pursuits, but that it’s vital to your psychological equilibrium that you have something to fill your hours, keeping busy so as to avoid boredom at all costs.
How does it feel when you don’t have anything to do? Do you feel restless or afraid? What types of activities will you say yes to just to get out of existing in a quiet moment alone?
Meaningful vs. meaningless stimulation
We need stimulation in life to experience our humanity. We are alive, mind and body, and we interact with our existence. Things need to be done; there’s no question about that. Depending where on the planet you live, you may have to feed yourself, finance yourself, and preferably have family and friends on whom you can count.
So, no, I’m not putting down doing. I understand it’s essential. Without it, you’re unchallenged and unmoved, just working on an interminable assembly line until you can clock off and go to sleep.
But if all you’re filling your time with is meaningless distractions, the moment a distraction is taken away, you’ll be confronted by existential emptiness. That’s what’s so scary about boredom.
When the coronavirus lockdown hit, my husband did not suffer the same way I did. He’s an artist, and he went to his studio and worked virtually all day, creating some absolutely marvelous sculptures. For my husband, a days-long journey into his art is a meaningful spiritual experience, so it is not frightening to him to have that time to himself.
What I discovered about me, on the other hand, is that I am a people person. Weeks on end, in our home and on the grounds, with just my husband and I, left me wanting some social life. For me not to see a soul beside my husband, whom I love dearly, was an outrageous situation. I need smiles; I need hugs; I need to be helping people. This is why I feel I was put on this earth. Without it, I tumbled into a spiritual lowland which I had never known before.
At least I’m not the only person on the planet that had to face this. Just think: When you really, really want to punish a prisoner, you place him in solitary confinement.
A life without boredom
One of my favorite things about being a mother was getting to see my children’s emerging character traits as they went from infancy to—well, all of them are parents now themselves. I had a remarkable opportunity to see how each of them figured out ways to be busy, hobbies to be interested in, careers and challenges to pursue. They played musical instruments; they did art projects with their father. From me, they learned the arts of soul-searching, communication, and how to spot damn good acting onstage or in film – you name it.
They are busy adults. They have families and professions, and engage in volunteer work. Each one is living an exemplary life.
I also know that they’re quite excited when their schedules open up and allow them a few free hours.
Good, they say. I can now use the time to finish this project, or even just to chill out. Since their lives are far from empty, it’s positive, rather than deadly, to have spare time on their hands.
It’s wonderful thing for a mother to see and to recognize as a consequence of a life well-lived.
Finding your bliss
If you are scared of being bored, the solution isn’t just to find a series of distractions to take up your time. It’s a much bigger challenge: to fill your time wisely, with activities from which you can derive meaning.
That’s not to say that you’re not allowed any silliness or entertainment. However, boredom can tell you something important about yourself. If the prospect of an hour off is frightening to you, that’s a good sign that you’re not being stimulated enough in the right ways.
I’m not saying you have to solve world hunger or go topple a military dictatorship. But what actions can you take that would make your life more fulfilling? It just might be worth thinking about.