This past weekend Justin and I went to visit his extended family in New York (the countryside, not the city) and on the way back were both–unsurprisingly–exhausted. But this kind of tired was rooted deeper than just the sleep deprivation that comes from visiting relatives and the drowsiness from hours of driving. We realized we had both been moving non-stop since Memorial Day weekend and were ready for a weekend of sleep, or at the very least, being stationary. As an incessant planner, however, my mind immediately started to fill in the blank hours with things to do. Things we’ve talked about but haven’t done yet, things on my to-do list, things on my D.C. bucket list.
But Justin said something that made me think (and also made me laugh because he said it in an accent), which was “I want a weekend where we can look at each other and say ‘Well, what do you want to do today?'”. You know, the question that is almost inevitably followed by the dreaded, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
Even though much of my childhood was shaped around this question, one that once inspired creativity and impulsiveness, it is a little terrifying to think of now because as ‘adults’, most of us are incapable–even scared–of being bored.
Running out of things to do or say in relationships is a sign of stagnation, of fizzling. For individuals, it is a sign of passivity. I realized the other day that I can’t even watch a TV show without also pulling up facebook or my email in the background. Looking around, I see people checking buzzfeed or instagram or reading the news while watching a movie with friends.
Is it a combination of the learned need for (and constant supply of) external stimuli and the need to feel like I am ‘busy’ and therefore being ‘productive’ that makes me and others so restless?
I think those things are certainly part of it, but beyond the little things we do to avoid boredom on a daily basis, I think the fear of boredom-for many people my age or really any age in a period of transition– is rooted in the desire to desire something. The desire to have something to do–something you are excited about doing–but not knowing what it is. Writer Adam Phillips explains it well:
Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.
I read a piece the other day by a mom who had to explain to her children that summer was not a season of daily entertainment. It is not a time of constant fun and excitement, but a time for bursts of energy surrounded by empty hours in which your time is yours to make. Her intention was primarily to battle the expectations that so many children have now–and that society has–on parents to make life magical and constantly stimulating for their children.
In this instance, we are the children and ‘summer’ represents life (in my case, post-grad life). Instead of the parents we expect to entertain us, we expect life to move quickly and drastically. We expect life to be passionate and exciting with new surprises around every corner that we can look forward to. And sometimes it is. Sometimes it moves so quickly that we can’t keep up with it and end up yearning for a few hours of nothing. But then we get those hours, the uninterrupted time to ourselves that we’ve been craving, and either a) get bored if it lasts too long or b) feel guilty if we enjoy it too much. We only let ourselves indulge in those hours of ‘nothing’ when we feel like we have earned it by putting in the work beforehand.
Unlike in childhood, our boredom and the solutions to it, can often last longer than a few hours, or a day, or a summer. But in the same way as when we young, in our boredom lies our creativity.
As adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one’s time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing?
We can think of boredom as a defense against waiting, which is, at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire… In boredom, we can also say, there are two assumptions, two impossible options: there is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire. But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom… In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness.
Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. So that the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know that he is waiting.
When we are bored we are trapped between wanting something to do and wanting to do nothing or having nothing to do. And then there is the terrible pressure of wanting to want something to do, but coming up empty. We are scared of getting stuck, scared of never making it somewhere even though we don’t know where that is or what it looks like and I think it is this deeper fear that manifests itself in the continual search for entertainment. But those quick fixes are usually unsatisfying. If you feel you are truly in a rut, go find something to do. Make a change. Is there truly nothing you want to do? Then do nothing, but don’t feel badly about it. Rest. Drink coffee and sit outside while doing nothing but feeling the sun.
I often have to remind myself that my time is mine to fill, but it doesn’t always have to be fulfilling. So the next time you find yourself wrestling internally with the desire to move and the desire to sit, groping for a distraction, ask yourself–whether you are thinking about the next five minutes or the next five years–what do you want to do?