Enduring Boredom

Swapna Mirashi

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.” – Bertrand Russell (The Conquest of Happiness)

One simple recollection by a grandmother, also an artist hailing from a noted Indian family struck me recently while I was interviewing her.

‘My grandfather loved to fish. He would sit in the afternoon at this huge pond in our garden, patiently waiting for a fish to get caught. I would sit by his side, for hours, quietly, making no noise so the fish will move about normally.’

She was 7 years old then. I wonder if any 7 year old today will demonstrate this patience and self control and obedience? From my observation of city kids, NO WAY! I have seen kids with iPads at restaurants to ease the wait and heard of those with iPhones on school buses to amuse them through the drive to school. I have received notes from school to equip children with a book in case they finish their exams earlier than the dismissal time. I may be generalizing and I hope there are exceptions, but children today, are known to be restless, super active and impulsive, with no relation to self-control whatsoever. So much ingrained in our popular psyche is this stereotypical image of a child that any deviation from this is abnormal, weird and adult-like.

‘The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.’

‘The pleasures of childhood should, in the main, be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theater, should occur very rarely.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote this about a century ago, when technology was still slow and life low-tech.

‘At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. There will be middle age, possibly even old age.

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing.

Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.’

In our continuous quest for finding something to do for our children and our obsession with having and giving an exciting day, we often forget to cherish and celebrate the ordinary. How will a child used to remote controlling a hi-tech drone, enjoy making and test flying paper planes? How will a child find pleasure in creating and soaking in the imaginary world by reading black & white text on an ordinary paper (book), when she is used to augmented reality, 3D animation? How can hand sculpting match 3D printing in the WOW factor?

‘What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.’

Although boredom and monotony on their own, are no good, they help raise the excitement levels in experiences to follow. It is like classic optical illusion problem; which of the 2 central circles is bigger.

Even if the circles surrounding the central circle do not add any diameter to the central circle, they definitely affect the perception of its size. Likewise, monotony on its own serves no purpose but it indeed elevates the excitement in a different experience. Same is the case with bland food, simple life…

‘Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.’

– Psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips.