Bore and peace: exploring boredom in the time of social distancing

Emi Stewart — Staff Writer

“You know I’m bored when I start cleaning.” 

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Nebraska resident and former Dordt student Megan O’Gorman feels the pressure of boredom. If there were not a viral illness festering throughout the globe, she — like all of us — could fill her day with errands and social outings. However, that is not the case. She resorts to dusting. 

On March 12, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Suddenly, establishments are closed to the public. Suddenly, employers are imploring their staff to work from home. Suddenly, millions of people have no option but to be still, to sit with themselves, and to endure long bouts of boredom. 

For most, Netflix, Twitter, and good old fashioned books can only provide so much relief. Eventually, we need to address boredom and see it for what it truly is — which is… what, exactly? 

“Boredom is that place that either leads to distraction, or to contemplation and creativity,” said Dr. Justin Bailey, Assistant Professor of Theology at Dordt. “We aren’t sure we’re going to like what we see if we go towards contemplation, and we aren’t sure that we have what it takes if we move towards creativity. And so it’s easier for us just to distract ourselves.” 

He sees the word as a sort of catch-all, junk drawer for many emotions. 

“We’re not being accurate and naming exactly what it is we’re feeling.” Digging a bit further into the sensation of boredom often unveils deeper, root emotions, and he notes that “if we’re honest, when we say we’re bored, what we really mean is that we’re lonely.” 

2019 Dordt graduate Elayne Heynen agrees. 

“My desire to avoid boredom is really a desire to avoid loneliness,” said Heynen, who moved to California after graduation. A new job is a big transition in itself — when paired with a new state and few established relationships, that jump proves to be an even more daunting one. “When I run out of things to do, I realize I don’t have any friends to hang out with.” 

According to Heynen, we often confuse boredom with rest. When people are uncomfortable with the idea of being at rest — for whatever reason that may be — they may simply claim that they are “bored.” Heynen views this time through the lens of Sabbath. 

“Rest is something God commands us to do in order to remind us of our own insufficiency and our lack of time, and the fact that we actually need God,” said Heynen. “Our current addiction to caffeine is an indication of our desire to be sleep-optional people. We refuse to rest… and that is a form of self-idolatry, in some ways.” 

Is this refusal to rest anchored by weighty feelings, and not simply wanting to accomplish more tasks? It could be an indication of underlying negative emotions that we don’t wish to address, or rest in disguise, or the instinct to create. Why does the prospect of stillness and a blank to-do list make some of us so uneasy? 

Associate Professor of English Luke Hawley is an advocate of boredom. In his classes, he encourages students to see what happens when they let themselves become bored. He believes some of his most creative moments come from embracing boredom, and allowing his curiosity to wander. However, having actively, willingly participated in boredom, he understands the instinct to avoid it at all costs. 

“I think there is a deep existential dread that is around the corner, all the time,” said Hawley. To him, boredom — although intimidating — creates space for crucial questions. “Be brave and ask the hard questions of yourself. What do I really like to do? What am I interested in? What do I think would be really fun to learn, instead of just learning in order to get a degree?” 

Senior social work major Holly Testerman is another defender of boredom, but her focal point is presentness. 

“What am I doing now? Who am I with now? What’s important now?” Testerman frequently checks in with herself by asking these questions. 

She was living in Uganda for the semester, as a part of a study-abroad program. Once the news of the COVID-19 outbreak spread, she was ordered back to the U.S. Although her experience was cut short by several weeks, she finds immense value in the time she was given. 

The director of the program had a motto that sticks with Testerman. This, here, now. 

This, here, now. 

In Uganda, Testerman would spend hours in silence, drinking tea, waiting for transportation, or watching chickens run across the road. She turned her watch and phone off, allowing herself to not be aware of the passing time.  

“When you take time out of the equation and you just let yourself sit, I think you can surprise yourself with how much time you can actually spend,” said Testerman. “Which is hard to do in America because we are super time-oriented. It is hard to detach from that and still be a member of society. But when you have the opportunity to do that, I think it’s really beautiful.” 

Boredom is an inevitable element of human life. It can be an opportunity for personal growth, rest, introspection, or the launching pad for a new creative endeavor. 

“How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” said Bailey, who includes the movie Groundhog Day in his curriculum on the basis of this idea. “What could you do with 30 or 40 years? Guess what, you have them. One day at a time.” 

 

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