The Quiet Contemplation of Inactivity
April 8, 2013 130 Comments
If you are of a certain age, or perhaps above a certain age, there was a time when we didn’t carry computers on our hips. When we watched t.v., there was snow and fuzzy reception. Antennas had to be twisted after a storm or to pick-up certain stations. Instant replay wasn’t invented so we could admire the artistry of the swing or replay the magical putt from 45 feet. Replay was born out of desperation: We needed to see everything twice to make up for the blurry image the cathode tube produced. HD television means never having to ask “did his feet land in bounds?”
And if you wanted a crystal clear image of nature, you had to go outside.
If you are of that certain age, you spent a good bit of your time outside because sitting inside for too long often resulted in holding the stupid end of the broom or spending your Saturday up to your elbows in chemicals cleaning the toilet.
Heaven help you if you told someone you were bored. Nothing’s worse, really, than a parent’s miserable attempts at sarcasm when they ask if you want to fill up your time by mowing the grass. I used to ask my kids what kind of board they were. Sympathy was never real high on my list of emotions. (Neither was humor if you ask our boys.) Those were days when kids shouldn’t be seen or heard.
Those were also the days, as Bell points out, where boredom reigned and no one cared. As kids we could come up with 16 ways to put our lives on the line using the jungle gym in ways no designer ever intended. They were days when we simply looked at clouds and imagined animals (or teachers or, for the juvenile delinquents, body parts) hiding in the puffy expanse of the heavens.
No one tapped into the 3G network to find out if we were looking at cumulus, sirrus, or stratus. If little Johnny spouted any educational nonsense that might make us think, we made sure he stayed home with the mop next time. We were bored, but no one was ever bored enough to learn something.
Except it appears, according to recent research, that boredom is good for the brain. Evidently, boredom switches our brain’s little buttons and the synapses and neurons start firing on more cylinders, pushing us to creativity and intellectual growth.
You just thought your parents where being insensitive when they told you to go be bored someplace else.
Understand that I’m no luddite. I willingly admit that I like my marginally intelligent phone. As someone who only knows which way is east twice a day, I grow increasingly dependent on pre-loaded maps. I like being able to look up John Kruk’s lifetime batting average anytime I want, and I love that I can slip out of the office to watch baseball and still be working virtually.
In the classroom, I like asking my students to look up facts, use their pocket brains to add numbers, or update calendars (with an alarm reminder!) on the spot. In the next 5 years, tablets and phones have the potential to transform some classroom behaviors, allowing teachers to focus on critical thinking and less on data transfer. Why spend 50 minutes defining a term when they can find 50 other people online defining it in an mp3 format?
But, I also can’t help but wonder whether we should also consider introducing (or re-introducing) boredom into the classroom and our daily lives. I remember visiting my oldest son’s first grade classroom. There were bean bags, a tree house for reading, paints, cubby-holes, and various other spaces so the kids “won’t get bored. Learning should be fun,” his teacher emphasized.
Who am I to argue? If I had 25 seven year-olds, I would probably want to avoid letting them get bored, too. There’s not enough wine to handle that much whine.
Yet, if we listen to Bell closely, boredom does a body good. It is time, it would appear, to require that we unplug and disconnect. Put the paints away, slide the book on the shelf, and create zones of nothingness for our kids. (Yes, I get the irony of mandated or scheduled boredom.)
Not being stimulated forces us to create or, perhaps even more importantly, asks us to grow comfortable in the quiet contemplation of our inactivity. Clouds become objects, sticks become snakes, bushes become houses, but most importantly, we rely on our self to pass the time. We lose contact with agendas and requirements and mandates and, almost counter-intuitively, become more receptive to learning and understanding because we must become active participants in our day or revel in our own boredom.
And the best part is that next time someone tells you they are bored, tell them it’s good for them.