--Oliver Wendell Holmes
I’m rarely so lucky as to have much free time on my hands, but that’s not the same thing as being bored. With endless labors including a self-imposed to-do list of screenplays, photographs, essays, production planning for various movies and videos, speaking engagements, the occasional poem, and (of course) the realities of helping keep a modern life and home functioning smoothly, I rarely have time to wonder what to do with my time. That said, boredom has nothing to do with empty time.
Boredom is about feeling adrift. It’s a feeling of irrelevancy, that the world will turn on its axis regardless of whether a person acts decisively or leans back against the couch cushions, staring into the middle distance.
Being busy is not the opposite of being bored. In fact, busy-ness is a disease of our age. For many people there’s simply too much purposeless stuff to do. The typical, modern declaration about a person’s list of “stuff that just needs to get done” doesn’t really offer a good justification for expending precious time. Among other things, that purposelessness ultimately defeats the ability to live well in the first place, which paves a fast highway to ennui. A person cranking out all those many tasks may discover that life has passed him or her without having afforded an opportunity for developing genuine value. Tasks without merit or meaning are simply conduits to exhaustion. That they matter to someone is not the point here. If that were the point, we’d inadvertently find ourselves shouting neo-Marxist ideology about how the worker must derive direct benefit of his or her labor lest they become yoked to a dehumanizing hierarchical structure. (Say that last sentence slowly: there’s something there worth thinking about.) Does the labor of the supermarket checkout clerk matter? Yes, in a way, but it’s completely unsurprising to find someone busy at a cash register who’s still bored beyond words. After all, it’s boring work. Sure, it has meaning to the store; it’s integral to store operations. It has meaning to the worker, too, insofar as it generates a pay check. But the thing to notice is that the necessity of the task is not the same thing as it’s vitality. What occupies the clock does not necessarily occupy the soul.
Neo-Marxism rears its head anyway. In no way does should we impugn the labor of that checkout clerk. The task of dragging soup cans and bunches of arugula across laser scanners may not directly inspire, but if we step back and see those grinding actions as part of a means for sending a first generation college student through school, deeper value emerges. That does not remove the boredom factor from the effort, no matter how indirectly valuable that effort may be, but it does re-frame the way we might consider each of our own unique, daily travails.
In fiction and the movies we might find a protagonist who swipes lettuce and milk cartons over bar code scanners by day and dreams up vital music, painting, or software by night, the suffering poet who’s work after a long day on the factory line inspires millions of nameless faces to something deeper and richer. But that’s usually made up stuff, Hollywood pixie dust, although like all the best lies it’s the grain of truth in the mountain of muck which manages to make people believe everyone might all be equally inspired. People want to believe that unsung patent clerks are all capable of transcendent labor after hours, but that’s simply not true. As Thoreau said, most people live lives of quiet desperation.
What to do? What to do?
Boredom suggests a restlessness that must be fed. While many see boredom as an excuse for useless self indulgence, creative people of wide variety and depths find that it behaves like a vacuum. The nature of boredom for creative people is that it will inevitably suck in an idea like pollen captured by deep inhalation. You can’t see it happen, but it happens just the same. The challenge here—and it’s a steep, craggy, unrelenting challenge—is to figure out how to overcome the obligations of all of that “stuff that just needs to get done” so that what little time actually exists in life has the chance to become something beyond merely a placeholder between morning and night. Where self indulgence is sometimes the easy, first means of erasing boredom, it ultimately defeats itself. The great potential—the great value— of boredom, perhaps, is that it can be the flint against which our own motivations might strike sparks.