The gift of boredom
This summer, my son gets to be bored all day, every day, for 90 days. You’re welcome, kid.
On my desk sits a stack of flyers for summer day camps. The options are mind-numbing: Superhero camp, Inventor’s camp, Minecraft camp, STEM camp, even camp for kids who like to run. The thought of weeding through them is paralyzing, so I have made the executive decision not to. The camp I am sending my son to this year is Camp Boredom. That’s right. No events. No themes. No scheduling of minutes and hours and days. Instead, I am giving my son the gift of a 1970s summer, free of all parental manipulation. He gets to be bored all day, every day, for 90 days. You’re welcome, kid. Go crazy.
And we might go crazy. I’ll let you know how many times in the first day I hear him complain about how bored he is and how he has nothing to do. In the late ’70s and early ’80s during my summers of boredom, I know my mom heard these complaints. But I am also willing to bet she was not terribly concerned about them. “Are you?” she’d respond, sipping her can of Tab through a straw and absentmindedly tapping her cigarette onto a salad plate. “Why don’t you go for a swim? Or read a book. What’s your sister doing?” And then she’d go on with her day of not being at all bored because adults don’t have time for boredom.
I didn’t know it as a 7-year-old, but adult me knows the value of boredom. It took a while to learn it, but by my teenage years, I had figured it out. My sharpest recollection of learning the value of boredom involves me sitting cross-legged in the middle of my parents’ basement. Summer days for a teenager are desperate times. The need to have Something To Do is so wrapped up in our sense of social value. Being alone and bored is a challenge … until it’s not.
On one particular morning, I was in the basement plunking a few notes on our hopelessly out-of-tune piano, rummaging through musty closets filled with my dad’s old books, and flipping through me and my sister’s carefully curated sticker books. Then, without warning or reason, the boredom broke and was replaced by a quiet contentedness and a fixation of sorts.
I slipped into the chair at the art table propped against the wall and started to draw. Maybe it was a portrait or maybe it was just some elaborate doodlescape. The drawing itself was not what mattered. What mattered was that sweet spot the boredom had led me to, that place of mindlessness and timelessness. I didn’t know if it was afternoon or late evening, if the weather outside was hot or rainy, if my brothers and sister were outside or in bed. I was in the same house as they were, but I was completely apart from everyone and everything in the way we all need to be sometimes. I didn’t care what my friends were doing or what I was missing. I was just in the moment, centered, peaceful, and happy.
As an adult with children, it’s hard chasing down boredom, but because of moments like those in the basement as a teenager, at least I understand its value. I have my parents to thank for that, but I also have my age to thank for that.
I grew up in a less plugged-in era. We had a Nintendo NES, but its powers of distraction pale in comparison to the iPods every single one of my nieces and nephews are hooked into. All I ever see is the top of their heads as they hover over their devices. I hate the plugged-in nature of their lives because they never have the opportunity to get bored, wrestle with themselves, fidget, get frustrated, explore, and ultimately find that place of contentedness and centering. They are never going to find that inexhaustible well that hides so cleverly behind the drudgery of boredom.
And what will we do with a whole generation without access to that wellspring of creativity, independence, and self-sufficiency? Sure, they can flip through computer screens with a rapidity my 70-year-old mother finds aggravating, but when will they have the time and opportunity for moments of inspiration? What good are STEM and Inventor’s camps without the boredom that those pursuits require? I bet Mark Zuckerberg was bored a lot. Stephen Spielberg, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and every other innovator in every other field know boredom and are probably terrifically grateful for it. I wish I were bored more often.
This is all to say, Son, you’re welcome. This summer, every time I hear you tell me you’re bored, I will hear it as a thank you. I will sip my imaginary can of Tab through my imaginary straw, tap my imaginary cigarette, and know that I am giving you the best gift imaginable—the gift of boredom. You’re bored, you say? You’re welcome.
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God’s goodness in the darkest places of the world.