Indulge the Creative Fire of Boredom!

Art by R. Ramiro of

Art by R. Ramiro of

What is it with me and the milieu of uncomfortable topics? Recently,  I was posting about creative people Letting Go and Moving On, and the accompanying grief. Perhaps it’s the hottest of the long summer days that inspires me now to address…without further, well, anything… the scintillating topic of boredom!

From “Life Without Boredom Would Be a Nightmare,” an article for Aeon by Andreas Elpidorou :

Pain is not the only unpleasant experience that humans are subject to. What about boredom? Might it serve some useful purpose, too? It certainly has no shortage of philosophical defenders. Bertrand Russell and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips both spoke of the importance of being able to endure it. Russell asserted that the capacity to weather boredom is ‘essential to a happy life’, whereas Phillips speculated on its developmental significance for children. Friedrich Nietzsche commented on the creative power of boredom and found value in its relationship to art. So did Susan Sontag, who in a brief diary entry suggested that the most interesting art of her time was boring: ‘Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc. […] Maybe art has to be boring, now.’

Martin Heidegger discussed, at length, the ontological lessons that profound boredom can teach us. And the poet Joseph Brodsky, in what might be the most famous and sustained defence of boredom, exalted its existential import. In his commencement address to the class of 1989 at Dartmouth College, he called boredom a ‘window on time’s infinity’ and spoke of its ability to put our existence into perspective, to demonstrate to us our finitude and indeed the futility of our actions….

Elpidorou further explains how the mechanism of boredom changes our perception of time, sets off an internal alarm, creates an alternate line of thinking which, therefore, becomes responsively active, like the physical withdrawal from painful stimuli. Go read it all for some stuff your bored mind might enjoy chewing upon.

I think of boredom as one of the plucked strings of divine discontentment, whose grating tone pushes me to move when I can’t tolerate the dischord anymore. It always worked that way for me as a kid, too, that kind of dissatisfied cloud-gazing because I couldn’t think of a single better thing… until I did. I wonder, with the solidly-packed schedules of activities and pre-defined, fully-realized entertainment of modern kids, when they get the benefit of developing their imaginations in idleness and also to stage their own ambitious responses to boredom.

When I looked up famous quotes on boredom, what I mostly found were notable, quite high-achieving types talking about how they’d never, ever been bored, and how it represented some kind of moral failing and lack of curiosity and enterprise. Oh, Blah and pull the other one! I frankly call out this this positioning of virtue as BS. I consider that if you’ve never been bored–admit it, you have!– you’ve never gotten your mind out of first-gear. Case in point: my Boston Terrier, Tessie, who has loved her purple squid toy for years. We can play with it daily, and it’s never not new and wonderful. Every toss is a fresh joy. This is one of her undeniable charms, her in-the-now ness. But if I were trying to, say, write a story, this plotline seems to lack something: There was a dog with a purple squid… and then a squid… oh, and then there was a squid… how about adding a squid here? Not exciting? Well perhaps more purple squid is what this story needs!

Dynamism is the result, the solution of tension, and boredom applies tension. Sure, you may be the type of person who recognizes and intervenes quickly to stuff something you value more into the void represented by boredom, but boredom is inflicted upon us and against our wills by waiting rooms, bureaucracy, incompetence, well-meaning fairness, the weather, people who aren’t jumping to the end of a process with us and need our company from square one. Internal boredom with ourselves is what happens when there’s something wrong we haven’t named yet, perhaps something so wrong that even contemplating fixing it is so exhausting or intimidating that it brings on the anxiety-releasing yawns that are also shorthand for boredom.

I also think the time dilation that Elpidorou notes is a tell, an indicator that boredom is a kind of stirring intellectual impatience, a desire to jump ahead to the “good part.” Yes, when indulged, that can show up as bad behavior and lousy attitudes in the immature (also, I’d say an inability to conceive or appreciate intricacies of process or investments over time). But among the emotionally growed-up, who appreciate that some things do take time, some of the best things even, and who try not to make the world suffer for our very personal foibles, these transient, disinterested moments of mental drift, when it’s too frustrating to engage with the now, can be surprisingly creative. They can be problem-solving. And often, we must have this kind of useful torture inflicted upon us, because we refuse willingly to incur idleness or rest on our own.

The-Idlers-CompanionYou can go look up boredom’s many scolds yourself. As an antidote, I offer this collection of essays, The Idler’s Companion: An Anthology of Lazy Literature, which looks like it’s had a couple of different covers since the one I got. Probably, the editors and publisher got bored with previous editions. Here’s the scoop:

More than 50 authors celebrate the independent spirit struggling against the drudgery of the work ethic. The essays, poetry and fiction excerpts in this anthology are filled with convincing arguments for reclaiming our days from the monotony of the working world. These persuasive voices prove that although Idlers reject conventional labor, their time is well spent…. Sometimes humorous, sometimes thought-provoking, this anthology of essays, poetry, and fiction extolls the virtues of the life of idleness. It is divided into four sections by type of idler: courtier, monk, unemployed, and epicurean. The eloquently lazy contributors range from Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne to Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau (who argues forcefully against a life of excessive labor), and G.K. Chesterton, who muses on lying in bed and having a pencil long enough to write on the ceiling. This little volume is sure to provide a few pleasurable hours of intense intellectual idleness.

Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily. 

Also, the leading image appears at The Writers Bucket List. Regardless of the pain evidenced in Lauren Tharp’s (@lilzotzwrite) post with tips on how to live through a dull freelancing gig, the death shown above is entirely metaphorical.

Boredom doesn’t have the power to kill you. It can only provoke you to murder it.

5 thoughts on “Indulge the Creative Fire of Boredom!

  1. Your intelligence and worldview are amazing. I can’t imagine getting bored reading anything of yours. I seldom get bored because my TBR pile keeps calling. I also love to reread favorites.

    Your quotes about boredom should be among the famous:

    I think of boredom as one of the plucked strings of divine discontentment, whose grating tone pushes me to move when I can’t tolerate the discord anymore.

    Boredom doesn’t have the power to kill you. It can only provoke you to murder it.

    These will go up on my wall of inspiration.

    • Awww, Leigh, that’s so nice to hear, and you make a good point. Maybe we NEED those towering TBR piles, so we’re sure there’s always something good awaiting us–that’s going to be my excuse from now on. Right? Right.

  2. Clare, thank you for this long and thoughtful essay. Myself, I do find that intrinsically boring situations, such as a long subway ride, can be used as opportunities to just turn off everything in my mind. And wait until ideas start to flow in to fill the emptiness. I had a similar thought quite recently about religious services. Maybe the intention is to be boring. Because if you surrender to it, and untether your mind from the daily noise…what might happen? (And this coming from a person who has never meditated a moment of her life!)

    • That is definitely the meditative state, even if you wouldn’t call it that formally. Not engaging intensely, but letting those thoughts thin out and drift on by. And I can say as a person who’s spent time in stuffily warm pews with loads of candles and incense, it works! You can mind-travel…

  3. I am never bored, probably because I am my own best company. And, according to one who should know, I am never boring. :) When my marriage ended my ex said, “You could be a pain sometimes but you were never boring.” I took that as a fabulous compliment.

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