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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Religion in the Digital Age

The subtitle of this blog reads, “searching for humanity in a technological world.”  At the core of this statement lies a belief that our lives have meaning and purpose. For better or worse, we live in an increasingly digital world, and it’s our goal to search for how we can retain the rich cultural and individual value of our lives within this modern context.

No matter what your personal beliefs are, it would be hard to deny that religion has and still does give meaning to the lives of billions of people on earth; that it has been a huge part of the historic, political, and cultural story of humanity; that most of us practice or have at least been affected in some way by religion.

prayer

It’s also hard to deny that how we live, work, play, and communicate have all been altered by modern technology.  (If you aren’t convinced of this, read some of our other articles!)

So what about religion–has the practice of religions changed?  Have they converted their teachings to PDF files?  Can you download an app that helps you remember the Muslim prayer times or to not eat fish on Fridays during Lent? (More on this to come in future posts).

pope tweets

A bigger question may be is this an issue at all, or am I splitting hairs?

As you can guess, I think it is something worth looking into. On one side of the spectrum, social media opens up huge outlets of communication for religions to tap into and spread their messages–i.e. the Pope’s Twitter account.  Social media allows religions to instantly access the home pages of millions of people; no more going from door to door with clip boards and pamphlets.

On the other hand, much of what is at the core of religions happens between two people face to face.  Showing true love and forgiveness for one another is hard to do in 140 characters.  And a heartfelt discussion about your prayer life isn’t likely to happen on a Facebook wall. You can’t get down and dirty serving the poor from behind a laptop screen.  In essence, I think a true experience of religion requires interaction in the physical world with the other person, whether that person is your Priest, Rabbi, a homeless woman, your spouse or friend.

jewish altar

This post is NOT meant to give answers, but just to get you thinking about these ideas that we’ll be diving into in our series on religion.  I don’t pretend to have the answers, but hopefully we’ll be able to discover some insights along the way.  Stay tuned!

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Images from:

jspace.com, muslimvoices.org, and Pope Francis’ Twitter page

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.

smartphones-at-concerts

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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