Dear Lily June,
We’ve reached the dog days of summer, as evidenced by the fact that, just this past weekend, as the heat index hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Muncie, your dad and I stayed inside to scare up the ultimate form of entertainment: very belated spring cleaning. We pulled out the fridge, the oven, the bed, expecting at the very least that the dust bunny safari and cobweb serial killing might make us feel accomplished. Turns out, all it made us feel was cleaner. TOTES LAME, LILY.
Around this time of year when I was a kid, I used to proclaim in loud, exaggerated sighs that I was “so-oh [2 syllables=srsly] bor-duh.” My mother’s response to this was the classic parental cliché that she could find me “something to do,” followed inevitably a task more boring than counting a beach by the grain, something along the lines of the chores your father and I just willingly (read: desperately) engaged in.
My Great Aunt Franny, a very authoritative Catholic nun, took a different tactic, far more infuriating than my mother’s. When I’d complain to her about being bored, she was quick with the retort,
“Only boring people get bored.”
Of course, both my mother’s and my great aunt’s tactics worked: After hearing their answers to my predicament–one manipulative, the other judgmental–I was, indeed, no longer bored. Instead, I was thoroughly engaged in scheming the many ways I could get back at either of them. As revenge is a dish best served cold, I took the time in my imagination to arrange my intricate comebacks like the delicate balance of flavors found in a sushi roll. But boredom would inevitable return when I’d find myself too cowardly to execute them. (The plans, not my family members. Sheesh, Lily.)
In a society increasingly plugged into to its miscellaneous technologies, it turns out boredom may be a dying art. (Color your Mother Picasso, Lily.) I first encountered the words of Eva Hoffman on R.H. Foerger’s blog and was immediately refreshed by them. She advocates for more time spent on leisure, not, she says, “a transgression against the work ethic” but rather a way to refresh us for it.
In her book How to Be Bored, she argues that we’re too devoted to our devices, neglecting all opportunities for productive downtime:
“We can become very disoriented as we move from one activity to another. We become emotionally depleted, paradoxically. We begin to experience not more but less. We begin to lose our ability to savour experience, to make sense of it, to experience our experience.”
What she’s ultimately advocating–that we take more time to just sit and think about our experiences before we come to hard, fast conclusions about our beliefs and values–is nothing new. The current push towards mindfulness, a kind of fast-food approach to enlightenment by focusing on the sensory details immediately surrounding you to the exclusion of anxiety-producing thoughts, seems to cash in on this.
And even outside the realms of philosophy or psychology, internet lexicon has given us, in the past thirty years, a word by which to express our disinterest with what’s around us, a neologism that sounds to me like onomatopoeia for if a dog could vomit a pancake made of apathy: MEH.
Ironically, I find my mind stimulated just by researching boredom.
First, you have to decide on your philosophy: Is your boredom a presence or an absence? A state of being or a lack of emotion? Some people, when they say they’re bored, mean that they can’t think of anything better to do in the moment. Others imply, with the word, they’re apathetic towards the possibility of doing anything.
Boredologists James Allan Cheyne, Jonathan S. A. Carriere, and Daniel Smilek take it a step further, claiming we get bored in three distinct scenarios:
- When we can’t do what we really want to do;
- When we’re forced to do something we don’t want to do;
- When we can’t, despite our best attempts and intentions, stay engaged with what we’re currently doing.
To apply these scenarios to your life as a 14-month old, you would find yourself most bored when
- …You’re prevented from shrieking in a pitch that makes capuchin monkeys say Damn, Girl…
…You’re stopped from cleverly weakening every screen, joint, hole, nook, cranny, and corner of your superyard baby gate so you can pull off this Buster Keaton-style maneuver…
…or you’re kept from recreating Katsushika Hokusai’s famous color woodblock inside our tiny bathroom’s tiny tub:
2. In the reverse direction, you would roll your eyes, shrug, and give us the old mock-yawn (if only you could) whenever we try to feed you anything but cheese, Cheerios, and Go-gurts; when we try to reason with you that 11:00pm is an unsuitably late hour for a girl your age to be getting her second baby-Godzilla wind; or when we try to make you communicate in anything but hand gestures.
“Say Dada,” I intone, to which you respond Blink.
“Say Mama,” dad implores, to which you respond Blink.
“Say Weltschmerz,” I beg, if only because, having only seen the word in print, I have no idea of its precise pronunciation. Blink. Sno-ore.
3. When, you know, your attention span shifts from…diapers to…food to…toys to…holy crap, you are always bored, aren’t you?
As a writer, I’m particularly tickled when I return to an article on three words that cover what boredom becomes when it’s blown up like a hot air balloon and floated into the realm of full-blown existential crisis: angst, ennui, or, you guessed it, weltschmerz. While the full article is well worth the read for the word’s etymologies , the terms’ definitions boil down to these three recaps provided by the author:
- If you’re… “dissatisfied and worried in an introspective, overthinking German way, [you’ve] got angst.”
- If you’re… “tired, so tired of everything about the world and the way it is [and] you proclaim this, with a long, slow sigh, to everyone around you, [you’ve] got ennui.”
- If you… “have sadness in your heart for the world that can never be and [a pair of] sensible shoes [then you’ve] got weltschmerz.”
I find that in my dog days, I’m usually behind Door #2, bored to the point of a stinging depression, though I suppose my frown should turn upside-down now that I know these kinds of doldrums make actually help me by, as Eva Hoffman praises, providing time for “reflection, for introspection, for the cultivation of self-knowledge.”
And now that I’ve thought about it further, I’ve come to this conclusion, Lily. There will be a day that you will come to me, probably in your pre-teens if not deep in the throes of adolescence, and you will say, “Ma-um, I’m bor-duh [2 syllables = srsly].”
And when that time comes, in the family tradition of dismissing such a complaint, I’ll have my own cruel line to throw at you, thanks to Hoffman:
That’s great, Lily! Now go contemplate yourself.
- By Chris from Poznań, Poland – Nuda, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24558765
- By Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) – Metropolitan Museumphoto of the artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2798407
5 thoughts on “On a Scale of Meh to Ennui–On the Occasion that You Find Yourself Bored, Period.”
I appreciate the resonance we have with “boredom”. And I confess that I have a resonance with your great Aunt Franny, for when my children were young with their two syllable lament, my own cruel line (a you would put it) was to say, “boredom is a state of mind, not a state of being… use your mind and imagination!” I am not entirely sure how I scarred them with that mantra, but they seemed to endured both their boredom and me. Thanks for the link and I like your take.
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I never really remember having a problem with boredom. So it has always astonished me when my son comes to me and says he’s bored. My response is usually to say, “You’re a kid. Go play. That’s what kids do. I shouldn’t have to tell you what to play. Go try one thing. If you don’t like it try another.”
Interestingly, with my kids, the complaint about boredom usually comes during the school year–after school and on the weekends. Our summers are full and they don’t have trouble finding things to do.
At the beginning of the summer, when I told my kids that we were having a screen-free summer, my son groaned and complained and was really concerned. It really made me smile when, just a few weeks ago, when he was sitting at the table doing some paint-with-water pictures, he announced out of the blue, “Mommy, I think we should have a TV-free summer next year, too.” (I’ll write more on that later.)
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I love this! My new response to my own children! 🙂
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I was horribly bored as a kid. I’d give almost anything to have the opportunity to be bored today. 🙂
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