Two Thoughts On Boredom - [And Why We Need You Not To Be]

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part one: Where does boredom come from?

There's a lot of content out there about how to be productive and achieve success and win and be on top 24/7, but I'd like to offer a slightly different angle to the conversation. My hope is to instill within our culture a way of viewing our activity that is contributive as opposed to another inspirational list of how you can get the feel-good productivity you want by doing certain things. I want to zoom the camera out a bit and see if we can place our desire for a contributive life in the scope of history and in the scope of our current cultural climate. 

So let's start with this.

Being bored is a relatively new invention in human history. 

For thousands of years, every single day of the average human's life revolved around the constant goal of survival. Every moment carried a responsibility to ensure that you and your tribe were going to make it. Your primary question was, “How do we survive today?” So if there was a moment of doing nothing, it was seen as a gift - a moment to rest that was celebrated. 

You just didn’t have people sleeping in and wandering around aimlessly, with no contribution to their place, complaining about how boring their life was. 

Then, through history, civilization progresses.
Technology increases.
Societal structures change. 

And it is all in a move to make survival easier. Call it a genetic predisposition or simply human beings use of consciousness, but the ingenuity of skill, science, socialization, government, and the myriad of mechanisms that have defined civilization have all been, at their core, an attempt to making living in the world a bit more controlled. It is the field of sociology that describes culture as the result of human beings drive for predictability and stability. We create systems, norms, and values to make the rough terrain of existence a bit more manageable to traverse than was previously experienced. 

From 12,000 BCE to roughly 300 years ago, this was the arc of humanity; use the world around you to create various technologies and methodologies to live more comfortably. For most of this time, however, not much actually changed. Primarily agrarian, with simple tools that were minor in their mechanical design, and most people still playing the survival game every single day with only small developments towards greater comfort and rest. As the epoch continued, an elite few, due to class development because of these cultural structures and social stratification as a response to said progress, were able to experience a modern experience of ease - maybe a king of a wealthy land owner's son - but most of the population was still laser focused on the strenuous task of survival. 

Most human beings throughout history had it a bit more difficult than us, today. 

Most human beings throughout history, however, also wouldn't be able to comprehend our conventional boredom. 

Because it wasn't until the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment periods in Western culture that boredom became conventional. With the increase in mechanical tools, the bureaucratic developments in the marketplace and political spheres, and the resulting luxury of resources and time there was less to do. The triumph over survival had begun. Progress capitulated the potential of comfort and the question was no longer, "How do we survive today?" but rather, "How do I live as comfortably as possible today?" The human drive for predictability and stability, around this timeframe in history, seems to have shifted from survival to comfort. We controlled our survival of the world to the point where the practical decisions of every day living became less nuanced and less a priority compared to the questions of lifestyle and happiness and meaning. 

Think about this: What is the ratio of time a primitive human spent thinking about survival versus meaning compared to a modern day citizen of the global world?

Much is to be celebrated here, certainly; what an accomplishment! But I hope we are able to see a side effect of such a shift from survival based living to the comfort based living that we currently find ourselves in. When camping is a form of entertainment, you know something has changed. We are so detached from how people used to have to live that we yearn to experience a glimpse of it, as it meets our schedules, to turn it into something fun. Even our modern work-a-holics do so rather comfortably and, often, in the pursuit of ultimate comfort. 

Now, let's be clear on a couple of things. First of all, survival based culture was not fun. Our technological breakthroughs have been instrumentally positive for the condition of being alive. What is not being articulated here is a romanticization of the historical past that would be an attempt to re-create ancient society because it was somehow better. I would not want to live in the ancient world as it would be immensely harder than I can comprehend. While there may be parts of ancient life that were positive and have since been lost, compromised, or forgotten in modern civilization, going backwards is not the point. 

Secondly, boredom and rest must be seen in distinction from one another. In a comfort based society that bullrushes luxury as the standard goal of life, it might seem strange to say that the quality of life might have actually been better in years past, albeit without much luxury. While being bored would have been a foreign concept because you were constantly set on survival, rest would have been plentiful. You may not be complaining about how boring your life was, but you probably did have an extensive amount of rest interspersed throughout a day and, more so, in various seasons of the year. 

What I am confronting, therefore, is not to simply conjure up primitive living as the ideal. My DNA would probably have become obsolete if it was replicated in its exact form thousands of years ago. I am a fan of the progress we have made. The potential, then, is to ask, "Have we lost anything?" Is the side effect of boredom worth mitigating while also maintaining the quality of life that our technology and culture has produced? In our cumulative triumph over survival living, is there anything we could recover in our modern age while still utilizing the breakthroughs that have made life less scary, less daunting, and less likely to end after a couple of decades?

This is where boredom came from.

The question is, "What do we do about it?"

A direct result of civilized technology, boredom is now possible because there is just a lot that you don’t have to do anymore. We aren’t going to redact our culture’s structure back (outside of the possibility of a major traumatic event that, in popular critiques of the nuclear age, would “take us back to the stone ages") so the question for us is how do we view boredom and what do we do about it? Assuming that it is foreign to our human condition - which is uncommon in perspectives that view work as negative…which, through association with the comfort as the ideal, work is seen as something to avoid (unless you associate work-ethic with your value and worth and need to prove to everyone how hard you work) - how ought we to interact with “being bored” today?

part two: Your Modern, Individual Mitigation of Boredom

Two thoughts here:

First, boredom is often the result of a lack of imagination. 

By claiming boredom, you may be able to exchange “laziness” as a synonym. Because when someone says, “I’m bored,” they often follow it up with, “There’s nothing to do here.” Which is utterly false. What you really mean is that there are lots of things you don’t want to do or lots of things that you don’t comprehend as options to do. Granted, technological process has given us the ability to not have to do lots of things. But as opposed to eliminating options from the moments of our life, progress should simply open us up to other options that were formally out of reach. Or our progress can allow us to still do though seemingly primitive acts without the weight or consequence of death. When it took all day to catch your food for the day, sure, you couldn’t take time to plant produce or care for your living quarters. But progress led to surplus and surplus led to innovation. It is how agriculture became a thing - because human beings, instead of saying they were bored and there was nothing to do since the hunt was easier, said, “With our extra time, we should try cultivating these berries.” 

Today, imagination will make boredom obsolete. There’s always something to do, some place to discover, some relationship to invest in, some object to make, some book to read, some walk to take, and, hopefully, some piece of beautiful progress that your surplus is allowing you to discover. 

Can we have gratitude for our advancement and still utilize the world around us for flourishment? Don't allow our comfort to blind you from possibility, rather, use it to your advantage. 

Which brings us to the second thought on boredom.

Second, boredom is a waste of energy. 

If you have energy and life and skills and gifts…you have options. If your mind can think, then you have options. If you are breathing and your heart is beating, then I have the assumption that you have this good, beautiful, profound ability to shape the landscape of our world. The place you inhabit and the people you are in connection to will be different because you are here. The gift of your life, in all of its forms, shapes the world we find ourselves in and you have tremendous potential & immense propensity to leave a mark on the world. 

Failing to use your imagination to contribute to our global story is wasting something that you have that our world needs. We won't get another version of you. So what are you going to do with this impactful gift that is your life? 

Which also involves only using your time for your own comfort. A note here then, playing video games all day might also mean wasting that gift. 

Now for a warning. 

There is a difference between boredom and rest. 

Especially to those who have a tendency to work incessantly because of the lie that your worth and value come from what you produce. There is a difference between sharing your gift with the world and trying to earn value through never stopping. The former assumes that you are already good and whatever you do in the world is a result of already being valued. The latter assumes that you aren’t good and won’t be until you prove yourself and achieve some abstract ideal. 

Please do not hear that the mitigation of boredom means you just have to work harder or that you can't be idle. 

There is a difference between boredom and rest.

There has to be room for us to care for the soil of our lives and cultivate richness by letting the land lie fallow. Remember, the ancient folk who knew no conventional boredom certainly did know rest. From my experience, proper rest, which is usually invested in your own life along with the lives around you, usually doesn’t feel like boredom. When done in rhythm with a proper use of your energy, it feels more like those ancient tribal ancestors of ours who celebrated the completion of the hunt or the end of harvest. We need that. 

part three: A question to guide you

As you go, there has been a question that has helped me create a different lens through which I view my time and my contribution to the landscape of life. Asking this has helped me move from avoiding boredom to celebrating opportunity. 

How would you live if you were exactly what was needed to heal the world?

I’m guessing you wouldn’t be very bored. 

So, let it be said of you that you resisted the pursuit of pure comfort. 

That you lived a life that utilized the immense propensity of the gift that is you. 

That your imagination helped take the world another step towards goodness. 

And that you weren’t bored.

Because we need you not to be.