Boredom, my companion
I grew up in Macomb, Illinois, a rural town of fewer than 20,000 people. The town comprised farmland and a university where my parents were computer science professors. Every couple months, we’d take an exciting trip to nearby Peoria, where we would spend a few hours at Chuckie Cheeses and have dinner at Old Country Buffet. Macomb was quaint.
The town offered a simple life and I was happy. There was never much going on, but I do not recall feeling deprived of interest or desire. It was, in retrospect, a perplexing contentment--maybe it was being a kid, or a product of the times, or perhaps the slow pace of rural life.
Boredom was frequent and fleeting, easily satisfied by visiting my friend George across the street, taking my ninja turtle action figures outside for a fight, or investigating the mud in the little steam in a nearby field. The question that announces boredom’s arrival--“what should we do now”--was quick to arise, but the answer, and boredom’s dismissal, would always appear.
At school, boredom was a little different, but as the son of professors, there was no shortage of more advanced work. It was only much later that my academic boredom advanced from momentary irritation to existential question.
As a kid, I felt unburdened by the question of “what’s the point?” I was a hopeful and trusting child. When an adult suggested I work on something, I did, and was rewarded with high marks, more work, and enough time to investigate the muddy stream.
This all started to change when we moved to Naperville, a busy suburb of Chicago. I remember feeling quite bored with some of the activities that I had pursued my entire life, like practicing violin or Chinese. Simultaneously, I had grown obsessed with reading and would check out dozens of books at at time from our local library. I would sit in my room with my door closed and play violin from memory with a book pinned open in my lap.
I had learned to multitask. When one task bored me, I would give it the smallest unit of attention possible and do something else with what remained.
At school, I would hide a book in my textbook so I could read while the class discussed a different book that I had already finished reading. I would keep an ear open so if I was called on, I could try to formulate an answer.
As it happens, this was around the time I got my first B, which felt like a disaster.
In high school, new kinds of distractions emerged, like girls. Now when I was bored, I could text girls, or, more realistically, stare at my phone paralyzed by anxiety contemplating the texts I could theoretically send.
Once I got to college, I started to feel the first deep feelings of boredom. In some cases, I’d sit in class and my mind would shut down. I’d feel exhausted and uninspired. Sometimes, I brought my computer and would just randomly browse the internet.
Periods of extended boredom would culminate in a form of existential crisis. Ennui, my friend called it, a feeling of dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Deep boredom.
I tried to resolve my boredom in several contradictory ways. First, I dropped my plans to apply to medical school but committed to completing my premed requirements. Second, I resolved to take fewer classes I was not actually interested in but added an English major and an extra class each semester to my course load. And third, I wanted to spend more quality time with my friends but picked up a second varsity sport that kept me in the gym and on the road all year long.
Then, in the ultimate attempt, I got a job in management consulting, where I was promised access to the most interesting people and problems in every industry imaginable. If that didn’t keep boredom at bay, nothing would. Sometimes it felt like it did, but ultimately it did not.
Boredom is a search for desire. Momentary boredom is the quick succession of “what should we do now” and what gets done. Systematic failure to find desire, sustained boredom, is an existential challenge for which we are mostly unprepared.
In this persistent form of boredom, one does not wait for someone or something else, one waits for oneself. Faced with boredom, one waits for oneself to decide whether there is something to desire. When the boredom runs deep enough, the type of desire one searches for is not a snack or a hug, but an answer to the question “what’s the point?”
While I can think of few questions more important than “what’s the point?” one often meets this process with a perplexing flavor of self-loathing. You feel, in my experience, like an entitled shit. This attitude probably comes from a cultural disapproval of boredom--the reprimands, sense of disappointment, allusions to failure that adults direct at bored kids. as psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:
How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met with the most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him--as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interest him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time
And so we find ourselves at an impasse. We desire desire of the existential sort, but without a clear path to this desire, we sit with our unpleasant companions, boredom and self loathing.
Something gives. This sucks, we think. I wonder whether anything cool is on Instagram. Haven’t checked Snapchat stories lately. I’ll just browse Imgur for a few minutes.
A VC friend of mine told me he thinks about social apps as solving the problem “boredom,” but what if true desire only emerges through the vehicle of boredom?