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: 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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