boredom and its benefits

“When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer – say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
Wolfgang Mozart

I was bored today so I decided to write a blog post.

Actually, I expect you were bored and decided to read one. This one, maybe.

But in a 24-hour cycle of media, Facebook, Twitter and endless entertainments, boredom may not be our enemy. It may be our friend.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, wrote recently about the benefits of boredom and his “tribute to tedium” suggests his own success was not rooted in a childhood of stimulation.

“For allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood,” he jokes. But his “greatest creative output was during my corporate years, when every meeting felt like a play date with coma patients.”

He recalls his “surprise free” childhood, with hours alone to make things like “a FrankenBarbie doll with body-image issues” out of Lincoln Logs. It was during these times his imagination flourished. And it is in the lack of time for reflection that our spirits shrivel.

Adams puts it this way:

It’s worth keeping an eye on the link between our vanishing boredom and our lack of innovation. It’s the sort of trend that could literally destroy the world without anyone realizing what the root problem is. A lack of creativity always looks like some other problem.

Amen.

And the problem it “looks like” is video games or the school system or the economy, when it is only our inability to solve problems and our fear of silences. I realize I’m equating boredom with solitude, but boredom is no longer not having anything to do: it is not having anything to stimulate us, losing our sense of wonder or indignation in a mind-numbing stream of information.

And no, I’m not talking about the kids. I’m talking about politicians and business leaders and school teachers. Even artists. The people who brought us more movie sequels and reality TV are not people who are comfortable with silence. Neither are those who brought us the debt-ceiling debates.

This lack of creativity is more than just a lack of time to be creative, however. Unlike God, we can’t make something out of nothing like He can, even though we are made in his image. We need something to work with: problems to solve, ideas to reimagine, skills to harness.

Doing this requires that which we also find (or call) boring: the patient, disciplined process of learning new things and practicing new skills. The time to do it is merely a luxury our culture neither provides nor praises. Even extra time will not help if we lack the understanding and tools to inform our imagination. Or the virtue. An undisciplined imagination in the service of ungodly desire is not much help in saving the world.

Technology certainly enables the collaboration and access to the information that innovation requires. But while social media, for example, might seem like a vehicle for creativity, it is just as likely a distraction (stop reading right now and go write a sonnet) that simply fills our time.

And relieves our boredom. But boredom is what we call our diminished capacity for solitude. And so we have no space or time or art to make things that matter.

No great soul, no great thinker, no great inventor ever lacked the capacity to be alone.

Or the courage.

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About wally metts

Wally Metts is the daysman. He is director of graduate studies in communication at Spring Arbor University and is a pastor at Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI. The father of four adult children, he and his wife Katie raise barn cats and Christmas trees in Michigan. His grandchildren call him Santa.

2 Responses to “boredom and its benefits”

  1. Saul Bellow noted that boredom “is the screech of unused capacities.”

    Excellent, thought-provoking blog (as is your habit, Sir Wallis).

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