In Defence of Boredom

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.

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A State of Distraction: Camera Phones and Experiencing the Present

So far, the State of Distraction series has looked at how technology distracts us from self-reflection and from engaging in the reality of life. This post focuses on how the prevalence of camera phones affects our personal and cultural experiences of the present moment.

Last fall I saw Mumford and Sons perform an outdoor concert, and it was an incredible show.  The band had high energy, great onstage chemistry, and for the most part the crowd was really into it.   However, I was constantly surrounded by people texting and taking pictures or videos.  Instead of dancing or singing, the crowd around us preoccupied themselves with attempting to document and share this moment.

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Is this harmful, or harmless?  Am I bringing up a legitimate concern, or am I just old fashioned and out of touch?  Either way, it can’t be ignored that the presence of camera phones is changing how we experience the present moment, and I would like to argue that it profoundly affects us on a personal and cultural level.

First, let’s look at this issue from a cultural or social perspective.  I’m almost certain that any person who has attended a concert can relate to the above scenario.  The immediate reaction is to just say who cares?–ignore the people on their phones and have a good time!  I did exactly that at the Mumford concert; I wasn’t about to let an iPhone ruin the show for me.  On a personal level, I experienced my favorite band to the fullest extent.

While we can look past them personally, camera phones do detract from the cultural (or communal) experience of an event.  Picture a concert, college football game, wedding, or any social event you want.  If your image is accurate, it will include many (if not most) people texting or taking pictures of the event.  Now imagine the same event, but this time no one has a phone or camera.  Everyone is fully present and engaged: the whole crowd dancing madly at the concert, connecting with family at the wedding, cheering like a painted-up crazed college kid at the football game.  A much richer, meaningful cultural experience is created when people engage completely in the present moment.

A similar effect occurs on the personal level, and this is beautifully demonstrated in a scene from the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  (As an aside, this is a great movie, and there will most likely be a whole post dedicated to it!).  In the scene, Walter (Ben Stiller) finds the eccentric photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) deep in the Himalayan mountains, where O’Connell has a perfect view of the elusive snow leopard in his sights.  What happens next is that he does not take the shot.  He explains to the much dismayed Walter that some moments are too valuable to try and capture; you must experience them fully in the present.

Scene from movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

Taking the picture would have distracted O’Connell from an incredible moment.  Instead of  appreciating the leopard’s beauty and being grateful for having seen it, he would be focused on the future–on capturing an image to prove to others what he saw.  I think Stiller uses this scene to show how our desire to capture every important moment lessens the extent to which we experience these great moments.

I think many people here will object to my claim.  You may say that it’s harmless to snap a quick photo, and it makes up for any distraction by creating a valuable picture to help remember something.  I agree that sometimes there is zero harm in taking a picture.  But I would like to make a distinction between taking a photo now and then, and trying to document every event in your life.  It seems that through Facebook albums, Instagram, and Twitter, our society as a whole is trending towards the latter, and this is dangerous.

Each time we try to document every party, game, dinner, hike, or anything we do, we take ourselves out of the moment.  Instead of being present, we are thinking about the future: about how we can post the picture, who will see it, who will like it.  We can have a much richer and more satisfying experience by not focusing on preserving each moment for the future, but by being fully there in the present.

My challenge to each of us (including myself) is the next time you want to take a picture of something, don’t.  Instead, focus on the time you are in, the people there, the beautiful things you see; be grateful for all that is around you.  I think by making an intentional effort to try this, we can make life a richer experience for ourselves and others.

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A State of Distraction: Getting Back to Reality

In the previous post on State of Distraction, we looked at how cell phones distract us from self-reflection.  In this post, we examine how technology distracts us from fully engaging in reality, and how this affects our quality of life.  

 Giussani writes in Religious Sense about what makes our elementary human experience.  He argues that at the core of our humanity, the core of ourselves, lies a hunger for answering the ultimate questions.  Who are we?  What is our purpose?  What is the meaning of life?  These questions burn inside us, and to live a fulfilled life, we must devote ourselves to answering them.  Living fully requires that we are engaged with all aspects of our life–engaged in all aspects of reality.  “This includes everything–love, study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor hope, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience.  Within every single gesture lies a step towards our own destiny.”

To sum up the previous paragraph, in order to live a full life, we must be completely engaged with the reality of life.  In more modern language, we must be fully present in everything we do.   It’s easy to lose sight of this in 21st-century life.  For one, most of us live very busy lifestyles, constantly running from one activity to another.  However, I think we can still live rich, fulfilled lives while being busy.  A more eminent problem facing us is how we have become distracted from reality.  I would like to argue that the increasing presence and vividness of technology is causing us to lose sight of reality, leading to disengaged and unsatisfying lives.

This may seem a bit extreme at first, but let’s look at some specific examples.  Compare the video games of the 1980’s with those of today.  Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga were (and still are, in my opinion) a blast, but they consist of moving a pixilated figure around a 2-dimensional, black screen.  In modern games you navigate entire worlds, playing the part of well developed characters in vivid, often violent scenarios.  Television has progressed from a few black and white channels to thousands of channels in HD, containing movies and shows of any genre possible.  Entire seasons of new shows are being released on Netflix and Hulu, enabling the habit of binging on shows for hours at a time.  (Who doesn’t love a 3-hour marathon of 30 rock!)  Lastly, phones and tablets allow complete connectedness to the internet at all times.

You may wonder why this matters, what’s inherently wrong with these things? I’m not going to say that the progression of video games and television are evil.  But think about this; how long could you spend playing pong or Pac-Man, or watching shows on a 15-inch, box TV with basic cable channels?  I can’t picture myself being entertained by these things for very long. We would enjoy them for a while, then get bored and do something else–talk to family, read a book, take a walk outside, make some tea and think about things.  In other words, we would get back to living in reality.

            

The problem with entertainment technology today is that it has become so vivid and real that we don’t get bored.   We don’t realize that we’ve been staring at a screen, watching fake characters or moving a joystick for hours.  The distractions are so powerful and convenient that we choose to be spectators of an artificial reality instead of engaging in our own.  This causes us to lead only a partial life, one that leaves us feeling empty and longing, instead of fulfilled and satisfied.  I like to come back to how I feel after a marathon Call of Duty session.  My eyes are blurry, reality is a haze, and having a conversation is difficult.  Not to mention the underlying anger at having wasted hours of my life.

How does one get past this in the 21st century?  The answer is simple, yet putting it into practice will be the greatest challenge.  We need to start being present and living all aspects of our lives with sincere interest, as Giussani said in the opening quote.  It won’t be easy. But if we do this, we may rediscover humanity in the midst of our technological age.

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A State of Distraction: Patience is a (Lost) Virtue

Patience is a (Lost) Virtue

This article is part one of a series that will be looking at the ways technology distracts us, and the effects of this constant distraction.

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Try and think of the last time you had to wait for something.  Maybe it was in line at the bank, at the doctor’s office, or the classic example of waiting–The DMV.  What did you do?  Stare at people awkwardly?  Take a nap? If you are like myself and most other Americans, you probably reflexively pulled out your phone.

Cell phones, especially smart phones, are perfectly designed for distraction.  We never leave the house without them, and they offer a pocket-sized window to the world of the internet, video games, and social media.  Whenever we get a minute alone with ourselves, we have been conditioned to pull out the iPhone, check up on Facebook, email, Twitter, etc.  I don’t own a smart phone, but the impulse is no different with me; I check voice mail, my calendar, and figure out who I should text to pass the time.

Is there something evil in the desire for distraction during moments of boredom?  I don’t think so.  However, there is value in the ability to be alone with yourself, with no external distractions. This time can be used for self reflection, to think about how you are feeling, about the choices you’ve made today, about your relationships and the direction life is heading.  If we allow the cell phone reflex to take over any time we have alone with our thoughts, then we will have no time left for self reflection.

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In the trial before his execution, Socrates famously told his accusers that “the life unexamined is not worth living.”  In our context, this means to me that if I don’t take time to think critically about my life, then my quality of life will certainly suffer.  Self-examination helps us know and develop who we are, what values we have, and whether our current path in life is consistent with those values.

I’m not suggesting that we all go toss our phones into the river.  However, I am suggesting that the next time you are waiting in line, put down the phone for five or ten minutes.  Spend this time in whatever sort of self-examination and reflection you choose. This is a very achievable goal, and I think it will have a definite positive impact on the internal richness of our lives.

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