In praise of boredom

16

Dear Artist,

A recently retired schoolteacher shared her career-long response to students complaining of boredom: “Only boring people are bored.” I strained to think of an artist who had ever complained of being bored. I wondered: Are artists innately gifted with a love of time? Are they anointed with savvier powers to daydream, to reflect, to be curious, inventive, doodling and self-reliant? Do they possess a diminished need for pastimes and entertainment? How did they get here? Are artists born not bored?

gaston_the-young-artist

“The Young Artist”
oil on canvas
by Gaston de La Touche (1854-1913)

Dr. Teresa Belton, a visiting fellow at the University of East Anglia had been researching the link between boredom and imagination and noticed that the hundreds of stories written by 10-12 year-olds in the Norfolk school system of the 1990s were increasingly unimaginative. She turned to a Canadian study done in the 1980s as access to television was being expanded across the country. It compared kids in three communities — one with four TV channels, one with one channel and one with no channels. The results showed that kids with no access to TV scored highest on divergent thinking skills — a measure of imaginativeness — and these skills dropped to the level of the others when the channels came to town.

eugene_onegin_illustration

“A superfluous man (Eugene Onegin) idly polishing his fingernails” 1908
illustration by Elena Samokysh-Sudkovskaya

Years later, when interviewing artists, Dr. Belton noticed their regular praise of boredom — both in childhood and adulthood — and its importance to new ideas. Boredom’s languid time was considered crucial for developing what she called “internal stimulus” — the gateway to creativity.

A friend recently divulged a family experiment of a yearlong screen and technology ban in her household of two ‘tween boys. “They don’t miss it,” she reported after a few weeks, attaching a photo of their sun-kissed noses buried in their own notebooks. At summer’s first blush, without the perpetual intrusion of online pacifiers and with space between activities, sports, lessons and entertainment, boredom has a chance to tiptoe into the vacancy and plant her life-changing seed.

boredom_1893

“Boredom” 1893
oil painting by Gaston de La Touche

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.” (Dr. Teresa Belton)

Esoterica: As the non-bored, instead of experiencing boredom, artists may appreciate the German translation of langeweile, or “long while.” As society’s newest over-stimulated and over-resourced consumers, boredom is a rare opportunity, a luxurious problem for kids to solve with aspirant, interior chops. These inner resources need exercise and development that begins now, when the frontal lobe is vulnerable to superficial rewards and mental laziness. Artists are made in this time — if given the chance to wander in the mind, to invent, play and develop one’s own stories rather than merely consume the art, ideas or advertising of others. “A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil,” wrote Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness in 1930. “Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.”

vasnetsov_nesmeyana_princess-who-never-smiled

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“The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.” (Dr. Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, 1993)


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16 Comments

  1. Barbara Belyea on

    You are so right: boredom (idleness, pause, rest, reflection) is a vital key to creative thinking. My most vivid memories of childhood are of summer holidays, and the long moments during those holidays spent looking at trees and waves, feeling the sun and crouching over tidal pools. My parents’ gift to us kids was a month in a beautiful place. What we did there was up to us. Above all we were allowed to do “nothing,” and we have treasured those times ever since.

    • I have been thinking about those memories a LOT lately! My parents did likewise re: vacations, and I grew up in the 1950s. I’ve been thinking about how summer vacation from school seemed eons long. Lying in the grass, gazing up at the leaves of the big elms which held our tree houses. Riding our bikes all day. I’ve been reapplying that casualness about time to my present life! in this age of insane stress, pressure to achieve, etc. it’s good to remember that it’s OK to just go with the flow and enjoy just ” hanging out”.
      I remember summer days when my parents and us kids just hung out together for what seems like forever in the kitchen without a thought of having to be somewhere or DO something. Everything we did do was at a mellow pace. There were no computers, 24/7 news, the TV only came on after dinner. It’s very nice to remember that and apply it to NOW.

  2. Thank you Sara,
    For me TV is a vacuum to thinking and in small measures it can be a nice for a break, but when I pass the small measure amount of time I can feel the empty frustration build.
    Getting quite and pondering things at hand and giving them room to be imagined is delightful, but it can feel a bit boring at times, often the way I label a thing has a big impact on feelings.

    Wishing all well with good amounts of fun,
    Shellee

  3. Excellent article, Sara, and it needs to be said that technology is smothering our ability to think creatively, and more so just our ability to think or concentrate. It has made us mentally very lazy and boring people.

    I live in Hawaii, and every day I see tourists spending their hard earned vacation days in a gorgeous place, staring at their phones for meaning.

    And it all happened so quickly is the really alarming thing. What’s next? Chips and implants seem to be calling.

  4. Thank you. This really needs to be said in an age where scheduled activities bump into one another, and there’s no rom for introspection. It’s evident in contemporary art, too, where often the making of pretty pictures indicates technical facility but only superficial observation, We need to be bored enough to soak up nature like a sponge and t allow the world to act upon us.

  5. Anne Bradley on

    Thank you Sara for attaching a list of retreats, courses, workshops, etc.

    I need a break and one of these courses will have my name on it.

  6. Someone once asked a certain Brit. the difference between children now and when he was growing up. He said something like children today do not know how to be bored…

  7. Margaret R Ryan on

    In Latin poetry, otium, or leisure, time to do nothing, is associated with creativity. It’s opposite is negotium, or busyness, or business. I was often bored in school. I felt like a prisoner. It made me a writer.

  8. Each article is always most enjoyable and informative! I enjoy BOTH Sara and Robert equally. Having each writer identified at the beginning of each essay would be helpful. As it is, I scroll down to the end before reading. That is not too tough, but I’d really like to see each identified first. Perhaps “From Sara” and “From Robert”. Thank you for all the great ideas and suggestions.

  9. Leslie Hancock on

    A poem by William Henry Davies is called to my mind , while reading this. I learned it as a child from my mother who is an artist. It goes:

    What is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.
    No time to stand beneath the boughs
    And stare as long as sheep or cows.
    No time to see, when woods we pass,
    Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
    No time to see, in broad daylight,
    Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
    No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
    And watch her feet, how they can dance.
    No time to wait till her mouth can
    Enrich that smile her eyes began.
    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    • This is a lovely poem except that it is expressing the negative.”We have no time” Think I shall rewrite it in the positive and post at our retreat cabin. A useful and inspiring letter, giving permission to really enjoy summer!

      • (With apologies to William Henry Davis )

        This is living! If twixt our cares,
        We take the time to stand and stare.
        Time to stand beneath the boughs
        And stare as long as sheep or cows.
        Time to see, when woods we pass,
        Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
        Time to see, in broad daylight,
        Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
        Time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
        And watch her feet, how they can dance.
        Time to wait till her mouth can
        Enrich that smile her eyes began.
        A shining life this is, twixt our cares
        If we just take time to stand and stare.

  10. HOW VERYTRUE! We just returned from a week of exactly that, a time by the lake to rejuvenate our senses! Just a plain beautiful lay about week to feel rested and rejuvenated. No TV, read books, played games and enjoyed natures glory. Thanks for sharing.

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oil on canvas
50 x 65 cm
2009

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