President’s Postscript | In Praise of Boredom
by President J. Derek Halvorson ’93
Are you bored? Bored with life? Bored by those around you? Bored by your stuff? And just how bored are you?
In 2014, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University published a study entitled, “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind.” Their conclusion included the following observation:
In 11 studies, we found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.
While few of us can imagine self-administering electric shocks, it’s certainly the case that when the book we’re reading or the people around us start to bore us, or when we just don’t want to sit with our own thoughts, we find it remarkably easy to pull out a smartphone and lose ourselves in untold gigabytes of potentially more “interesting” information.
In 1930, Bertrand Russell wrote that, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase” (Conquest of Happiness). We are in danger of becoming a “generation of little men.” Everything around us in our modern, technological culture seems to scream, “whatever you do, don’t be bored!” And there are plenty of people who are willing to supply us with a non-stop flow of bits of entertainment to distract us from the terror of being bored.
In her most recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle tells the story of a conversation she had with twenty-five college students who told her that their greatest fear was boredom. Whenever a conversation looked like it might not be entertaining, or whenever they were alone, they immediately turned to their phones. In the words of one of the students, her phone was an “insurance policy” against boredom.
The tragedy of our default to our distraction devices is that we are missing out on a precious opportunity. We are missing out on the opportunity to love the world and those around us by giving them our attention. Because it is literally a blessing to pay attention. Consider perhaps the most famous blessing of all, that was given through Moses to the people of Israel in Numbers 6:
The LORD bless you
and keep you;
the LORD make His face
to shine upon you and
be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up His countenance upon you
and give you peace.
Twice in this blessing, the Lord turns His face to—He pays attention to, or gives His attention to—the people of Israel. The seemingly simple act of paying attention is a way for us to love the people and the world around us.
Having worked behind the register at a grocery store when I was in high school, I often wonder what it’s like for the people who have that same job now. Frequently, customers are so consumed with the entertainment on their mobile devices that they don’t acknowledge the existence of the person checking out their groceries. As Christians who recognize the image of God in all men and women, we should be particularly vigilant against this tendency not to give attention to those around us.
It’s important to acknowledge that getting over the habit of distracting ourselves whenever we start to feel bored will take practice. Given the ubiquity of technology in our lives, it’s something we have to train ourselves to do. Cal Newport, a theoretical computer scientist at Georgetown, points out in his book Deep Work that if we’ve trained our brain to respond to the slightest sign of boredom by seeking distraction, it will undoubtedly require re-training for us to be comfortable with boredom. That means that we have to very intentionally welcome and embrace those quiet moments when we’re not being entertained, when there’s nothing going on, when we’re “just wasting time.”
We need to practice being with our own thoughts. Practice being with others. We need to be quiet, be still, be present, and see. In so doing, we bear witness to the love of the God who is never bored, but delights in us and in His good creation.
This article is excerpted from a larger discussion on boredom delivered as a chapel lecture in the fall of 2016.