“The very simplicity and nakedness of man’s life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature… But lo! men have become the tools of their tools!” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“Quite obviously, boredom is all about perception. It’s a self-diagnosis, pure and simple. If you don’t realize you’re bored, you’re not.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect
We text at stop lights and play Angry Birds in waiting rooms; we’re constantly updating our statuses and “checking in”. We fend off boredom with a shield of digital devices. “The human capacity to be seduced and sedated by bright, shiny objects should never be underestimated” (Maushart). When Maushart decided to make her family screen free, she knew boredom was an inevitable byproduct of removing their distractions.
Maushart discusses boredom’s origins and analyzes our current culture’s view of it. First of all, she notes that the word “boredom” and its counterpart “interesting” did not even exist until the 18th century. She expands on that point, but right now we’re focusing on today’s environment – one filled with constant stimulation.
I know I’ve experienced battles with boredom. Similar to the avoidance of silence, I find myself feeling literally uncomfortable sitting still and doing nothing. I don’t mean sitting on the couch staring at the TV; I mean doing absolutely nothing (and for you smart alecks, I know you can’t literally do nothing – you know what I mean!) So where did this discomfort originate? What’s so bad about staring into space every now and then? Maushart thinks that her own “experience with boredom also suggests a connection to a loss of control”, and I think that is spot-on for many of us. “Sitting in a trapped classroom, or at the laundromat… may be labeled as ‘boring’–but it’s really frustration borne of powerlessness”.
She also contemplates the busyness of our chaotic lives (which is quite ironic considering our plethora of technologies are meant to make our lives easier). Maushart also points out our culture’s blurring of the line between work and leisure and the fact that our digital devices only blur the line further. I think the constant mixture of the two has led to a true misunderstanding of what leisure should be. Maushart mentions that she used to brag that she was “never bored”, to which I can completely relate. When someone asks what I did last night, I feel compelled to have a riveting answer, or at the very least a mildly entertaining run-down of the evening’s events. If I truly did nothing remotely productive, I feel guilty. Why?
I think that Thoreau provided a good warning when he said “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things”. And sometimes “serious things” require deep contemplation spurred by boredom itself.
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust.” – Henry David Thoreau, “Walden”