Seeking Boredom

I actually create opportunities for boredom. I seek it at times. I enjoy it, in the right measure. It is necessary to my mental health and vital to my creative process.

Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that the contemporary concept of boredom did not exist until the 18th century. Up until then people were too busy surviving to think about the quality of their free time. You had to plant the crops, tend the animals, harvest the crops, weave your cloth, make your furniture, kill and cook your food – there was no time to reflect on whether or not you were entertained.

Our life today is much more indulged. We are never far from an endless stream of movies, tv shows and funny cat videos. In the same way that being “too busy” has become a badge of honor for many people, the idea has spread that life is not worth living unless you are entertained every free minute. Most of the people I know are completely at a loss if they are cut off from the internet. They are like a trapped animal ready to chew its leg off to escape.

So am I some sort of masochist bent on inflicting pain on myself by intentionally allowing boredom? Quite the opposite. I have discovered that I need time to process information. We need to “let our mind wander” to give our subconscious freedom to make associations and connect the dots as Steve Jobs put it. A major part of creativity is being open and receptive to ideas, to what if? questions, to seeing things in different ways. I believe it is nearly impossible to do this when we are immersed in the noise of modern life.

Being bored is a great motivator. It may force us to pick up a notebook and write, or pick up a camera and shoot aimlessly, or pick up a tool and start making something. Something will come of this. The product we are making right now may not be great, but it is exercising our brain, it is allowing our creativity to flow, it is giving us the space to connect the dots. It may lead us to a place we never anticipated.

One of the exercises I do that is totally mysterious to most people is to turn the audio off when I am driving. Try it and you will find yourself locked up with your own thoughts. The boredom crashes in on you. Try driving across eastern Colorado or western Kansas with the radio off. The thought of it would make most people ready to chew their leg off. But if you are lucky, you come to accept it and realize the benefits it can release.

Being alone in your own head, without someone else’s programmed video or audio track to lead you, you think random thoughts. Unanticipated ideas come. You look back on things and forward to things and think about who you really are, what you have done, what you want to do. And if you are driving you spend time really looking around, actually seeing things, wondering about them. You can think “hey, I’ve never been that way; I wonder where that road goes?”. And you might even check it out.

One of my early guides in photography, John Shaw, said: We are surrounded by beauty and live in a world of wonder, if only we take the time to see what is all around us and permit ourselves to feel deeply and genuinely. In the smallest detail we might discover tranquil harmony, and in the largest expanse elation and joy. Thoreau said Most men live lives of quiet desperation.

I believe a way to break out of that desperation, to feel deeply and genuinely, is to practice boredom and let that lead us to a new place. A place where we are directing our own lives and thinking our own thoughts.

The image attached to this article would never have been found had I not put myself in a very boring place – and gotten lucky. Actually, it’s not just luck, but that’s another story.

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