I frequently tell my composition and literature students that the greatest sin a writer/reader can commit has nothing to do with grammar or subject matter. Rather, the greatest sin a writer/reader can commit is to be boring or bored. I believe this same standard holds true for a human being.
Trust me, there are days when I turn on the evening news that I would all-but-kill to be bored silly by mundane accounts of legislatures passing bills with bipartisan support, of street improvement projects rather than marches in the street, and of police organizations sponsoring youth sports leagues in disadvantaged neighborhoods. That’s a type of boredom I could get behind.
I will also concede that there is another school of thought that suggests boredom should actually be sought out. One of my very favorite authors David Foster Wallace wrote a 548 page novel, The Pale King, about an accountant working in a regional IRS office just to prove his point that, when properly approached, boredom can serve as a means of slowing down our perception of time and of nurturing mindfulness. Wallace explained it this way: “Bliss—a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious—lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax Returns, Televised Golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” Despite our contrary means, I think DFW and I have the same goal: to become unborable.
It might also be relevant to point out that DFW hung himself at the age of 46.
I believe that life is too short and the world is too interesting and filled with fascinating people and worthwhile experiences to allow yourself to become bored. Sure, we all experience periods of boredom, but to wallow in it is to fall victim to what the French call ennui: a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Such a condition often results in or from hours spent thumbing maniacally through social media or surfing Netflix for the perfect antidote to your boredom. I enjoy social media and I love a good Netflix series as much as the next person; I just don’t let either of them become all-consuming or soul-sucking, of which both are capable of becoming.
To some extent, I think the key is to do interesting things yourself rather than watching others do those things and to never stop learning. The saying is true that life is not a spectator sport. For example, instead of watching others redesign their homes on HGTV, begin a home improvement project of your own. Instead of just listening to music, take a guitar or piano lesson. There are plenty available on YouTube. Instead of watching your favorite sports on television, join a local league or organize a pick-up game. As for lifelong learning, iTunes University, MasterClass, and plenty of local organization offer some high-level instruction in a variety of fields of interest, academic and otherwise. Instead of complaining about injustices and/or bad policies, join the debate. One of the most moving experiences of my life was participating in the March for Our Lives march in NYC after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School to demand sensible gun reform.
Although I encourage thrill-seeking as an occasional reminder of life’s fragility and therefore its preciousness, and I’ve done my share of pushing the boundaries of my personal comfort zone (mountain hiking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, ice runs, half-iron mans), there are plenty of less extreme antidotes to boredom to be applied on a daily basis. Some of mine include writing, reading (which I consider an activity), tennis, physical fitness, coffee and conversation with friends, long walks (often in nature) with my wife, and napping (God, I love napping, and I consider myself an “active” napper).
“If you’re bored or boring, shame on you!” I like to chastise my students (and occasionally myself). The world is an amazing place, and we are amazing creatures with a limited-time opportunity to make the most of this life with which we’ve been gifted.
I like to share with them the words of Keith Urban in his song “Days go By: “[This life] is all we’ve been given . . . so you better start living RIGHT now.” “Right,” of course, has a double meaning in this case: 1) immediately and 2) correctly and with the implication to be up-and-doing.
Amen to that.
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