Last week my Internet conked out. After refreshing the Wi-Fi search 50 times, restarting the computer twice, and saying a desperate prayer to the gods of connectivity, I relinquished to defeat. I sat on the couch in silence, feeling a surge of anxiety building up: what will I do?
The blackout lasted for about 5 days, and it taught me quite a few things. For one, despite all my high-minded ranting about technology, I’m just as Internet addicted as anyone. My will to fight against the endless mini-dopamine surges to be found by clicking and swiping is no greater than a 5-year old on an 8 hour car trip.
More importantly, it helped me remember a feeling that I haven’t experienced in many years–boredom. That feeling which seeps into you on long, tired summer afternoons when there is nothing to do and your mom tells you to go outside and play. The one that tells your brain it’s a good idea to eat a whole box of Cheez-its while re-watching Lost for the 3rd time. That thing which the infinite media stream offers to cure for good–until your Wi-Fi breaks, at least.
You can define boredom in many ways, but to me it’s best described as an absence of something which leaves us feeling empty or incomplete. As a culture we tend to loath this feeling. Whenever it starts to creep up on us we gravitate to the nearest distraction that has the path of least resistance: our phones, Facebook, TV. Constant connection to devices offers the most instantaneous relief from boredom. But is this good?
As I said earlier, I’m just as media addicted as any other millennial out there. I panicked a little when I realized I would be internet and TV free for at least a few days. But as I sat on the couch for a while, a strange thing happened.
I was OK. I made a cup of tea and read a book. I played music. I genuinely enjoyed the company of others, just to talk and be together. It did take a few hours to re-adjust to being disconnected, but after that life went on as usual. There were some noticeable changes, though.
Allowing myself to feel boredom, to accept it and realize that everything was alright, was actually a profound experience. It helped me realize that I don’t have to search for an immediate distraction to fill any silence. It opened my eyes to the richness of life which had gone unnoticed. When I was connected, it took an effort to pull away from devices. I enjoyed reading, playing music, cooking my own meals, etc, but they all felt a little like a chore compared to the ease of passive entertainment. But with that entertainment not available, those things became acutely real and beautiful in a new way.
The same can be said for interactions with people. When having people over, we didn’t have Netflix or YouTube videos to fill the conversational void. Instead of fearing awkward silence or boredom, I truly enjoyed just having the company of other people. Visitors became a cause for excitement.
I do realize that I’m essentially describing Victorian life. What shall we do–read aloud from Dostoevsky? Take a turn about the grounds? Call upon Elizabeth? My point is not that we should revert to an antiquated society, but that we can enrich our lives by not having such a strong fear of boredom that we always revert to the fastest and most convenient distraction around. Once we take a step back from technology and realize that the sky won’t come crumbling down, we can start to further appreciate the things around us and can build a more meaningful life.
Back to my story, the Internet eventually turned back on. And I went back to binge watching shows, scrolling through websites, etc. It wasn’t as easy to pick up that dense novel as it was when I wasn’t connected. Maybe (I hope!) many of you are stronger than me, and don’t have the same struggles of will, but I’ve found myself at a crossroads. I do want and need to have the Internet, as it provides truly useful tools for getting information and connecting with people, but I keep becoming victim to its mindless distractions.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a perfect answer for you. Right now I’m trying to be mindful and intentional about setting limits on my connectivity, in order to make time for the things I value more. Maybe when I figure my own stuff out I can present a great, well thought out plan. For now, what is most important is that we don’t give up trying, and that we don’t forget that there is a beautiful world all around us, we just have to look up to see it.