Of Thanks and Boredom

by Lane Wallace on November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving! One of the few times a year societal pressure actually encourages us to slow down and be in the moment–if only for a moment–and consider all we have to be thankful for. The two go hand in hand, of course–the slowing down/being in the moment, and having thoughts of what you’re thankful for–because it’s impossible to truly feel, let alone savor, an awareness of gratitude if you’re running around frantic or overloaded, focused on external action, and racing madly toward that next work deadline.

So I suppose the first thing we all should be thankful for is that we have at least this one day a year when we’re actually supposed to stop, take a deep breath, look around us, and search out those “gratitude moments” (or whatever affirmation coaches now call them), but what used to called, simply, blessings. Finding those rays of sunshine in our lives, even if they’re few, that help to balance out the rest. And then, letting that feeling of gratitude dwell undisturbed in the air, and in our hearts, for at least a short while.

In order to do that, of course, you do need to turn off the football games for a least a few minutes (aka the Thanksgiving scene in the movie The Blind Side). Because you can’t be in the moment in any contemplative way, and be distracted, all at the same time.

City dwellers have always had to work at keeping distractions at bay, because there’s constantly so much going past your senses. A recent New Yorker article quoted an essay published by Siegfried Kracauer in 1924 that bemoaned how urban dwellers “are pushed deeper and deeper into the hustle and bustle until eventually they no longer know where their head is.” Kracauer also noted that the constant distractions that bombarded city dwellers made them apt to develop a “blasé attitude” (which, by the way, goes a long way toward explaining New Yorkers and the famous “New York attitude”).

Constant distractions are no longer just a problem for city dwellers, of course. In an age of constant connectivity and and digital entertainment, everyone with a smartphone (or tablet, or video/computer game capability) can stay pretty effectively distracted–and, in Kracauer’s opinion, disconnected from that grounding sense and knowledge of “where their head is”–almost 24/7.

Kracauer’s solution to this problem of lost centers and ennui was an embrace of what he called “radical boredom”–that is, consciously closing the shades and the doors to shut out all the distractions, and practicing the art of simply being alone, in silence, with yourself.  The point wasn’t just to be bored; it was to allow yourself, as Evgeny Morozov, the author of the New Yorker article put it, “to peek at a different temporal universe, to develop alternative explanations of our predicaments, and even to dare to dream of different futures.”

It is, in a sense, the same advice offered by everyone from monks to meditation instructors: to find your center, close out distracting noise and listen within for the gems of peace, thought, imagination, or inspiration that might lie there.

The conundrum of that advice, of course, is that, for anyone not innately inclined toward introspection, it’s a fear of that very unstructured silence and solitude that drives them to seek out all that distraction. Back in the old days, boredom wasn’t much of a problem, except among the aristocracy and the wealthy classes. Everyone else was too busy to be bored. Oddly enough, one of the spoils of the rise of the middle class may have been the freedom to be bored.

I don’t know that there are necessarily more boredom-averse people in the world today than there were in the 1920s–although there are undoubtedly a lot more people with enough financial security and free time to have the luxury of that problem. But today’s world is certainly more amenable, with many more options of media distraction and connection available, to folks who don’t ever want to be alone with their thoughts.

So what’s a distractophile or distraction addict to do? I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at Morozov’s admission that he can’t detach from all those apps and media distractions without the help of additional apps or devices (he actually bought a safe with a built-in timer to lock away his smartphone and Internet cable, so he couldn’t be tempted, and he listed a number of apps and devices that are available to help manage your distractions). Seriously? Find a little discipline, people. If you WANT a bit of silence and space to think, or to embrace a little boredom in the interests of both sanity and creativity, all it takes is the decision to turn the on/off switches OFF.

Tell yourself … on this subway ride, I will keep my phone in my pocket. While I wait in this long line of people, I will not play Angry Birds, but will, instead, look around and allow my mind to wonder, wander, and observe. I will not take my phone on this walk through the woods, but will, instead, apply my focus to really seeing, and thinking about, what I see there. I will embrace a little silence and boredom in my life, even if only in small doses. And I will try, in the space those bits of silence and boredom open for me, to be more present in the moment, and in the experiences of life as they happen.

Of course, an important part of this equation for anyone except monks, is finding a balance between action and inaction. Every great symphony, meal, and life needs balance and variety to be interesting. It can be exciting to be in the thick of where the action is. (This is also part of why people get so glued to their connective devices, these days - the appeal of being “in the know,” and in the center of where the “action” is.) And there’s also a legitimate and productive synergy that comes from combining energy and intellects in a place that thrums with activity and ideas. Hence the rise of places like Silicon Valley. The trick is to seek out worthwhile experiences and connections, but then to allow yourself some space and silence to contemplate them –without giving in to the distractions of either non-stop action or non-stop entertainment or information. Our dogs yearn to run free in the park every day - we ought to allow our minds the same luxury, if our lives can afford us that space.

We may fear or dislike boredom. But if we want to know the song of our souls–or, as Kracauer wrote, to flirt with ridiculous, embarrassing, unscripted ideas that might just turn into an inspirational answer or concept–we have to find the courage to embrace a bit of boredom in our lives. For the strongest and most enviable humans are not those who, shark-like, must stay in constant motion to survive, but rather those who are at peace with both motion and stillness; comfortable enough with themselves to let their minds float undirected toward whatever silent thoughts, wanderings, and wonderings they might have.

In short, we should seek to experience what we feel in those moments before the Thanksgiving meal–where we allow our minds to quiet, wander, and dwell on all we have to be thankful for–more often than once a year.

Just a little food for the mind, to go with the rest of your Thanksgiving meal.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 rkharr 12.06.13 at 8:01 am

So articulate!

2 Edwin 02.03.14 at 8:44 am

No one could have put this onto words better than you, well written!

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