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Cultivating BoredomBy Steven Tomlinson
Two years ago Microsoft published a study showing that between 2000 and 2015 the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds to about 8. (Nine seconds, the study famously pointed out, is the attention span of a goldfish.) Our shrinking capacity for attention coincides with the rise of smartphones. As young comic writer Simon Rich puts it, “Millennials don’t have shorter attention spans. We just have better stuff.”
They also, like the rest of us, have little tolerance for boredom. Why risk a discomfiting intrusion of the unconscious when a quick hit of dopamine is only a swipe away? Sure, our relationship with mobile technology feels like addiction — but does it matter?
Psychologists, like Heather Lench at Texas A&M, are finding in boredom the seeds of innovation. Apparently boredom both motivates people to imagine new things and produces brain states conducive to creativity. In this respect boredom signals a healthy appetite, an invitation to engage and discover, and scrolling Facebook when you’re bored is a cognitive junk-food binge.
But even if the research proves definitive, we’re probably not ready to do much about it. Modern sleep patterns conditioned by electricity and divorced from natural rhythms of light and darkness have already cost us the restfully creative, prolactin-laced states of midnight consciousness our ancestors took for granted. We’re not moving back to the woods. We won’t miss boredom.
And we won’t stop wondering if there isn’t more to life. What if sanding away at the familiar surface of experience might gradually reveal something richer?
My doctor once told me that decades of writing with my right hand had twisted me in ways that could account for the back pain I was experiencing. When I insisted on a cure, he told me to write left-handed. It started awkwardly, but I stuck with it. One day, a couple of months later, walking through the neighborhood, I noticed (as if for the first time), a flowering shrub beside a neighbor’s house and colorful curtains in the upstairs windows next door. Not long after, I suddenly had a fresh angle on an old work problem. I was moving and seeing and thinking in a delightfully unfamiliar way. The doctor said, “Yes. This is the left-handed you. You’re untying yourself.”
I am writing about rootedness. We have mixed feelings about roots. Roots nourish but they also bind. We crave depth and belonging but not at the expense of our freedom. I ask young people about roots. They talk about friends who were afraid to leave their hometowns, about how staying put narrows the mind. They prefer wings.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers had a proverb: “A tree oft transplanted bears little fruit.” But these Egyptian monks of the third and fourth centuries had uprooted themselves from the city, transplanted themselves to the purgative silence of the desert. Rootedness was for them not a matter of geography but of attention. They left distraction to cultivate a fruitful boredom.
Rootedness is not the comfort of the familiar. It is the challenge of intimacy. It is the commitment to resist distraction and see what is trying to happen. It is the practice that subordinates our idols to the facts on the ground.
Rootedness is not a virtue in itself but rather a discipline, like meditation, that with faithful practice yields depth and connection. It is, like meditation, persistence in pursuit of boredom — and, thus, wisdom. It is most powerfully practiced in community, where, on the other side of our mutual boredom, we become for each other occasions for surprise and renewal.
In this era of constant partial attention, as technology forms human consciousness in its own relentlessly mobile image, boredom commends itself as guardian of our creativity. Even as evasion and evacuation become our digital reflexes, rootedness remains an option, a reliable route back to our selves.
When was the last time you were really bored?
What might you discover if you resisted distraction?
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