Living the Questions
What is the value of boredom in our lives?
Krista Tippett created and leads the On Being Project, hosts the On Being radio show and podcast, and curates the Civil Conversations Project. She received the National Humanities Medal at the White House in 2014. She speaks widely and writes books including Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Read her full bio here.
Marie Sambilay: Hello, On Being listeners! This is Marie Sambilay, one of the audio producers here at On Being Studios. I’m here with another installment of a little experiment we’ve been doing. It’s called “Living the Questions,” where Krista responds to questions from you. I love this question that we received from a parent, Dylan Stein, who says, “I’ve been trying to explain to my son how OK — or even good — being bored is, how it’s an opportunity to daydream and to invent.”
[music: “Rain” by Dustin O’Halloran]
Krista Tippett: I don’t know if I would call myself a daydreamer. I was a thinker. I would sit around and have thoughts. Impatience was something I suffered from. That won’t surprise you. [laughs]
Ms. Sambilay: Dylan’s question brought Krista back to how she experienced boredom as a child, to how she sees boredom now as a parent, and what all of this is teaching her about the role of boredom and mental downtime in all of our lives.
[music: “Rain” by Dustin O’Halloran]
Ms. Tippett: When my kids were little, we had a pediatrician who had a sign on her wall that said, “Every child should be allowed to get bored at least once a day.” I don’t think we were thinking about this culturally as seriously as we are now, but it was the same idea because it was my generation of parenting where we were already starting to overschedule children and also give into this cultural energy we have, which is about being constantly entertained and that if there’s a void, you fill it with consumption or something you’re receiving or taking in. It totally made sense to me. I used to say that to my kids. If they ever said, “I’m bored,” I would say, “That is great. I’m so glad to hear that. Maybe you’re gonna get creative right now.”
But actually, I think that gets at a much deeper challenge that we have now because of our technologies. These technologies kind of landed on us. They’re so smart, and they’re so well-designed, and they’re so immersive, and they’re so intimate that we just went with them as the path of least resistance. It’s been fascinating — whether you’re four or 60 — it’s been fascinating to have these things at your fingertips that can take you anywhere, theoretically; teach you anything; connect you with anyone; or feed those desires to buy something or be entertained. I do feel like we’re waking up and starting to think about “So what have we lost?” And the technologies are not going away, but what do we want to recover? What do we want to not give over?
Teju Cole was here at our studios the other week, and we didn’t really get into this in the conversation; we alluded to it because he’s been thinking about what is lost when we can know everything. I’ve been thinking about this, too, that this compulsive never-sitting-with-an-unanswered-question and always being able to look it up on Wikipedia or search it is kind of annoying. One thing I think about now, too, is there are now those of us alive who still have a memory in our bodies of what it was for that not to be possible, and what it was that, if you’re in a long line — they didn’t have Chipotle back then, but a long line wherever — that you actually just had to be standing in that line. Everybody did not have a device. And I wouldn’t say that it always felt like boredom; it was just time that was not being employed and where your brain was kind of empty.
It’s not necessarily that that was real quality time, being present to the people in the line at a restaurant. But I think that our minds had a chance to rest. This is so interesting to me, too, in my life because in the mid-20th century, there was a lot of skepticism about sleep, and rest altogether, because we were all about “time is money.” All of this was a “waste of time,” which is such an interesting phrase, if you think about it. It’s also just such hubris that we think that we can waste time; we don’t even know what it is. But that sleep was a waste of time, and there were a lot of these methodologies about how you could sleep less and still be OK and then get more done. And now we’re realizing in these really profound ways that sleep is the way our body heals and refreshes. I actually think that we’re all just having that experience of knowing that we are better when we sleep, just like children. If children aren’t getting enough sleep, they cry, they’re unhappy, they’re crabby. And we are too. Your whole life long, that’s true, but we like to suppress it. I feel like there’s a parallel — that what may look like wasted time, nonproductive time, of just not being entertained or captivated, is really important for us.
I certainly feel this for younger people, who don’t have a body memory, are going to have to create that body memory, create experiences, carve out — I don’t necessarily think it has to be in the Chipotle line, but maybe. Because the other thing we’re learning about our technologies is that they are literally designed to stimulate this biochemical response that makes it hard for us to stop, or hard for us not to go there. Personally, as somebody who has — where depression is a place in my life that I have gone, and I know I could go — I’m aware, when I’m feeling low, that that biochemical response that my technology spurs in me is stressful because it’s giving you dopamine. It’s giving you these things that, when your brain is not firing on all cylinders, it needs. But it’s giving these things to you in a way that is, in fact, wasting time; that is completely meaningless; and that takes you away from the unpleasant and yet life-giving work and depth and feeling of struggle and an awareness of our vulnerability and the ways these dark times and difficult situations force us inside, force us to deeper places in ourselves where we wouldn’t have gone otherwise, but we are better for it. It disrupts that. It disrupts what, over the course of a lifetime, becomes the creation of interior life, becomes the wellspring of an examined life, and, much less, interrupting the capacity we have for contemplation, for deep thinking, for reflection, for things like prayer and meditation and a deep quiet.
Finally, I think what’s important about all this that we’re also coming to understand on a whole new level is that that kind of getting calm inside, that kind of grounding ourselves as we move through the world, as we are not just present to the world, but a presence — in our workplaces, in our families, with strangers, with the people we love, but also the people who drive us crazy — the more calm and grounded and full and whole and conscious our presence can be — that is civilizational work. Especially in a moment like this, where everyone is on edge, and all of our devices of culture — our technologies, but certainly journalism and news and so many of the images that are coming at us — they are designed to put us on edge. The more we can embody the reality that there’s more to us and there’s more to a day, that we are capable of calm presence; of presence; of, also, the joy that can rise up from our deep places that is different from the pleasure of the instant hits — that that is an offering, not just to our own resilience, but to everybody around us, in a way that I don’t think it was a few years ago.