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The Gift of Boredom

Ah, the wonderful days of summer. The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing, and I can relax in the tranquility of unstructured hours, serenaded by the lilting voices of my children calling out to me, one after another, “Dad, I’m bored!”

boredomOne wonders why children look so eagerly forward to the end of the school year. Yes, there are those parents who can afford to send their children to eight weeks of summer camp, arts and crafts camp, sports camp, music lessons, water parks, beach clubs, summer abroad programs, and Russian space-tourism training sessions. Other parents dissolve their children in water on the first Monday after school ends and siphon them into the portals of computers, Play Stations and X-Boxes, abandoning them to video games, television shows, DVDs, Facebook, and endless IM exchanges of wassup? nmjc, ttyl.

Still other parents are fortunate enough to have jobs that keep them out of the house while their children bemoan the endless hours of summer monotony. But it is my sad fate as a teacher to share the house with a passel of enervated teenagers, even if somehow I remain immune to the contagion of boredom that afflicts them every year from early-June through mid-August.

My wife and I offer our children endless suggestions. Go for a bike ride. It’s too hot. Call up a friend. Nobody’s home. Read a book. I’ve read them all. Do a puzzle. That’s boring! You’re bored anyway; what’s there to lose. [A symphony of groans, sighs, muttering, and rolling eyes.]

From whence comes this plague of boredom? Do Eskimo children complain of boredom during the four months of winter darkness? Did the children of feudal Europe or Botany Bay or the Great Depression whine relentlessly that there was nothing to do?

In one of Aesop’s most enduing fables, the ant works diligently to lay away food for the winter while the grasshopper fiddles in the spring, dozes through the summer, and dances in the fall. When winter arrives, the ant retreats to her well-stocked home while the grasshopper slowly starves to death. (In the modern, politically correct version, the grasshopper begs the ant to have mercy and save his life. The ant gives the grasshopper a lecture on planning for the future and personal responsibility, then allows him to eat from her cupboard.)

But for all the value of its lesson, the fable misses a more subtle point. Even according to the modern version, the ant might have shown greater kindness had she left the grasshopper to die. A life of unearned and unapologetic leisure is at best half a life and, for many, is worse than no life at all. For insects to live out their days without meaning or purpose is no great loss. For a human being, it is the greatest of tragedies.

teen-boredomIronically, boredom is the warped expression of human ambition. This may be counterintuitive, but it is not difficult to understand. People who truly lack ambition are blissfully content to sit for hours doing nothing without a whisper of complaint. For them, inactivity is not a scourge but an ideal.

In truth, boredom results from the clash between ambition and laziness. Part of us wants to achieve, to savor the sweet taste of accomplishment and success, to change the world and leave our mark on the face of history. But that persona must contend against an alter ego that wants others to do the job for him, that wants freedom from the onus of responsibility even when he has nothing else to occupy his time. And today, when electronic gadgetry and entertainment provide every kind of sensory stimulation while demanding no effort whatsoever, our aversion to effort and exertion immobilizes us like a mind-numbing barbiturate. In the words of Leo Buscalia, the self-actualization guru of the late 1970s: “If you’re bored, then you’re boring!”

Boredom is the clarion call of our souls, the needling alarm that prods us to stir from our torpor, to take up the banner of a meaningful life, and to pursue the fulfillment of our potential. It is the stinging reminder that, deep within the recesses of our hearts, we have no real desire to indulge the sedentary siren song of laziness. Our spiritual essence rebels against inactivity and inertia, rousing us to action by tarnishing the tranquility of our languor with painful tedium.

The yearning of the lazy one will destroy him, observes King Solomon, for his hands refuse to labor; all his days he indulges his desire. It is neither poverty nor excess that is the cruelest fate of the terminally lazy, but the vain frustration of ambition throwing itself ineffectually against the prison walls of lethargy. He has created for himself a living hell and, even more tragically, condemns himself to an eternal life of regret and remorse over opportunities missed when he arrives in the World to Come.

48856_thumbnailAll this is lost — along with much of life’s wisdom — on the unimpeachable certitude of the teenage mind. But at least I can make them pause for a moment; when next they complain of boredom, I reply, “That’s wonderful! Boredom is good for you.”

A dozen years from now maybe they’ll remember and ponder and understand. For now, of course, they simply look at me like I’m insane. But they’re teenagers; they’re going to do that anyway.

Originally published on Jewish World Review.

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