In Defense of Boredom

Edward Arthur Walton – A Daydream 1885

It’s important to have unstructured time. It’s important to have time to daydream, to wander, to tinker, to putz.

It’s important to get bored.

That’s right. Bored. As I understand it, boredom is a necessary blankness that makes space for truly awesome ideas.

“Only boring people get bored,” my mom used to say when we were whining about having nothing to do and begging to watch something. Then, “If you’re really bored, why don’t you clean the refrigerator?” We’d figure out something to do real fast.

The ideas that came out of my childhood boredom weren’t boring, and I’m sure your children’s aren’t either. We trained our chickens to stand on our heads, earned our way to Wild Waves by playing Suzuki songs on the Birke Gilman trail, and strung a tin-can telephone from one tree fort to another around two sides of our house (it never worked, of course, but the can may still be in one tree). I made my own bow and arrows, sat on our grape trellis and burned pirate treasure maps with a candle (safely, somehow), invented a language no one now speaks (or ever spoke), and tried to make things grow in the paint-chip invested no man’s land between our house and the neighbor’s driveway.

I could reminisce about all of this for a long time and I will spare you, but that’s partly the point: these are bright memories, and they all came out of boredom.

Sitting out boredom is also great practice in sitting out anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and every other uncomfortable thing life shoves at us. If we learn how to go through boredom without anyone fixing it for us, we’re that much better equipped to sit out the rest of it without reaching for screens or drugs or work or alcohol.

And there’s more — just like land, people need fallow times. We need the time to compost our experiences. Every moment does not bear fruit. Gary Snyder says it well in his poem “On Top”:

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.