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Facing, Embracing, and Chasing Boredom

Jul. 30 2019

Facing, Embracing, and Chasing Boredom

I started writing this on a cell service-less chunk of tarmac at the Portland International Jetport during minute 42 of my flight’s delay. I was sitting in true limbo, unable to connect to in-flight Wi-Fi (it’s all a ruse), staring blankly at the rude grey “check internet connection” bar stuck to the top of my screen.

Unfamiliarly, I was going through a withdrawal of sorts:
No feeds to scroll through — truly blasphemous.
No podcasts preloaded — if I couldn’t burn my retinas, maybe I could blast my eardrums.
No dogs or babies to make faces with for primal entertainment — Portland, how could you.

At the time, I was overcaffeinated. In life, I am overstimulated. And, like most millennials, I have a touch of ADD and an exhausting restlessness. So, sitting on this plane, tapping my leg like the annoying meeting-goer who swivels their chair throughout, I was without. Without a short-term goal, without a stream of unseen content, and without a sense of reprieve.

Boredom, hello, it’s been a while.

It’s been so long, in fact, that I can name the exact date of my last encounter with boredom — March 25, 2018) — and only because it was an equally jarring experience that left me gawking at my own productive instincts.  On that cold March day, I sat for multiple hours, accomplishing nothing. Leave it to grandparents to have couches to sit on, a TV and Wi-Fi, but no cable and no memory of the passwords that would bring any of it to life.

Stagnant on that couch, my thoughts were crashing in waves. What am I doing with this time, with this life? Should I see a therapist? Maybe I could do a workout from memory on the carpet, using the deadweight television as a kettlebell. Is this listlessness normal? Why am I mentally incapable of spending three hours as living white noise?

Unmute Mute

You see, we millennials never experienced in-between moments growing up. For us, true boredom is extremely rare, and if it does rear its unwelcome head, it’s not something we are encouraged to embrace.

In fact, we’re bred to fend off such a failure. I grew up hearing that “people who are bored don’t have imagination” and spent my only-child upbringing doing everything in my power to stay un-bored — German lessons, ballet, guitar, sailing, math (but why?) — desperate to stave off such criticism.

It’s this deep-seated fear of spending meaningless time that has led me, and many like me, to avoid boredom without even a tinge of consciousness. That is to say, we don’t know when to be bored, and we don’t know how to exist in that state. We’ll occupy our moments with anything (anything — the destruction of the name Becky, slicing through sand with sabers, loving and then hating a show about medieval clans — millennials are animals) before we’d embrace true unfettered boredom.

All this to say that although I’m always doing something, it does not always mean I am doing something.

However, it was in this vacuum-like, nowhere-to-focus-my-thoughts moment in a cramped United Airlines seat where I was able to focus my thoughts and actually produce something — even if it was just in the notes app of my otherwise useless phone.

Maybe, I reasoned to myself, producing this something out of nothing means that boredom is actually the antidote to aimless productivity. Could these anti-moments, the moments where we aren’t assigning meaning to our time, be wide open moments for creativity and, ultimately, meaningfulness?

There, in Tarmac Limbo, boredom allowed me to be intentional about where I was spending my productivity. Boredom, though infuriating and seemingly uncontrollable in the moment, ultimately gave me the agency to create in a way I hadn’t since well before college.

Ironically, I finished this piece after landing in New York — only because I didn’t want to think that I’d wasted time writing something that’d never see the light of day (or at least the light of an editor’s inbox). But how could that time be wasteful if I produced value when there was none? Regardless of the outcome of this piece, I was able to create something purely thanks to nothingness — quite the opposite of wasted time.

In giving up the 20 minutes of otherwise vacant time I would have spent haplessly filling, I was able to reallocate those moments’ value to a more intentional experience. Waste (or not) yet to be determined, generating and chronicling this thought stream in my pre-takeoff window proved to be far more meaningful than aimlessly scrolling, eyeing another Medicare stat that I would never remember anyway.

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