Boredom and Creativity

Brooke likes to say that if you’re bored, it’s a reflection on you.  Of course, she’s right, but the problem isn’t when we are bored — it’s that we never are bored.  We are so surrounded by noise and activity, from games on our phones to DVD players in cars to the incessant allure of the internet.  We don’t have to be bored anymore.  Literally, at any moment — from waiting in a line to walking down the street — we can browse the web or chat with friends.  If I push Ellis in the stroller, it’s not uncommon for me to talk on the phone (assuming Brooke isn’t along).  We don’t wrestle with boredom.

Which is too bad.  Boredom is a great help, a gadfly — if you will — that moves us beyond our current state of existence.  It is uncomfortable to be bored.  Good.  Because sometimes only this discomfort pushes us enough to interact with our environment in a new way, to create, to play.  A couple weeks ago, I saw a video of college kids who were doubtlessly bored.  They created.  It wasn’t something utilitarian they created, but something brilliantly fun:

I think of this in my own life.  I think of times when I’ve been bored enough to do something similar (maybe not quite so hilarious), and how modern life does not encourage this.  Modern life encourages efficiency and utility.  So, we work and distract ourselves with supposedly meaningful diversions.  We do not allow ourselves to become bored.

I read a study about play in animals recently.  Scientists have theorized that play is utilitarian in some sense.  It has passed on through evolution, so it must have some significance.  They’ve thought that maybe animals who play more end up higher on the social hierarchy.  Or, perhaps animals who play more develop better hunting skills.  The problem, according to the article, is that no evidence suggests this.  It seems a likely theory, but when testing, there’s no correlation between play and hunting skills, or play and hierarchy.  Even more, play can become very dangerous for animals (as well as people): animals can get badly injured or die from play.

One of the only positive correlations they’ve discovered so far concerns play and rats.  Apparently, rats are very playful animals.  If a rat is denied a chance to play, either by being isolated or surrounded by drug-induced zombie rats (my term, not the article’s), it becomes stressed.  When introduced to a difficult situation, play-deprived rats either resort to rat-rage (not my term) or run off into a corner, scared.  They don’t know what to do with their stress.

And so it is with us.  Not that you have succumbed to road rage or seen it firsthand; not that you have run off after a seemingly minor situation full of anger or stress; not that any of us have so stunted our understanding of boredom and creativity and play that we don’t know how to manage in this world.  But, it has happened in rats.  In theory, it could happen with us.

So, be bored.  I hate to be as trite as telling you to turn off your phone next time you wait in line, but do it anyway.  Make up stories about the people in front of you.  Wrestle a two-year old (I do it all the time — you just can’t try your hardest).  Sit long enough and hard enough with your guitar or in front of a blank page or before a sewing machine or with a layout of your garden or while rearranging a room or while debating a problem so that you come up with an idea worth having.  Reject the first three ideas right off.  Wait long enough for something with true worth.  Creativity doesn’t happen instantly.  It’s hard work.  Sometimes, it’s boring.  As a person halfway into his second novel, I couldn’t be more serious.

Because, all of this boredom lets us play and create in new ways.  You may notice how I’m using “play” and “create” almost synonymously — that’s because they are almost synonymous, if we shed away our utilitarian viewpoints.  I’m not talking about creating just to produce something, under a tight deadline.  I’m talking about life-giving creation, the kind that happens as much on a blank page as on a basketball court.

And, if you cannot quite get bored enough, leave your phone at home and go to the airport.

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