February 22, 2020

The Case for Boredom

Photo from Pixabay.

Summer is here and the more I think about it, the more I realize my childhood moments consisted of mostly just sitting there.

Whether in 1980s Iran or 1990s America, I mostly just sat there, especially during the summer, when I learned to perfect the art of staring at a Persian rug. Eventually, I invented a game called “Spot the Stain.”

Sometimes the thrill of sitting on a couch was enriched by another game, one my mother called, “Get Those Lazy Feet Up While I Vacuum!”

Chances are that if you were born before the age of smartphones, or if your parents weren’t wealthy enough to prioritize your constant amusement, you too spent many childhood moments just sitting there.

In hindsight, wasn’t that great?

I bet nowadays most people would give a lot to have time to sit somewhere and stare at a wall.

From Santa Monica to Tribeca, trendy cafes would pop up inviting people to stare at a wall without having to worry whether they’d be regarded as psychopaths. Phones and tablets would be banned more strictly than cigarettes.

As a bored child, the more my mind wandered, the more it journeyed toward the mindful.

The craze would go viral, and Netflix would film Japanese author Marie Kondo helping hapless, overwhelmed people of various ages create a “safe wall” (as opposed to a safe space) that they could stare at for an unspecified amount of time. The show would be sponsored by Home Depot’s new line of “Soothing Through Staring” drywall.

I need to stare at walls. I buzz from life-sucking device to life-sucking device like the world’s most disoriented bee at an IMAX film about honey.

Research has proven that the human brain needs boredom to improve function. Scanners have shown that blood flow increases throughout the brain when humans do nothing. Isn’t it incredible that more blood moves through human brains when people are bored, like happy bees in a flower garden, as opposed to flies in a landfill?

Why are we so afraid of boredom? 

As a bored child, the more my mind wandered, the more it journeyed toward the mindful, until I began to concoct stories about people and places.

I recently watched a mother, father and their two young sons at a Persian restaurant. Each child was looking down silently at a tablet. I wondered if I could reach over from the adjoining booth with my fork and take a radish from one of the kid’s plates without anyone noticing. There’s nothing like a crisp radish with kabob.

I also wondered why the family bothered to go out and spend time together if both kids were glued to their devices.

During dinner parties in Iran, I often just sat there for three to four hours. Today, at dinner parties I attend in hopes of nabbing fancy radishes, I see the same scenario: kids in one room, enjoying constant stimulation from phones and tablets, and adults in another room, sipping tea and enduring long moments of awkward silence, otherwise known as Year Eight of marriage.

I can’t claim I was less bored when we came to the United States. I still mostly sat there, watching people and drinking deeply from the well of acculturation. Without even a Walkman in sight (my family was delightfully frugal), my mind was free to explore the bigger mysteries of our new American lives, such as how 50 states managed to make a unified whole, and how rapper M.C. Hammer was able to relieve himself while wearing those humongous pants.

I’m on a mission to Bring Back Boredom, starting with children. Do we dare allow kids to be bored? Freed from the noise of technology, their minds will find something to do, even if it means meticulously calculating a plan to reclaim their devices. Blood floweth freely.

I’m in my 30s, and used to think I belonged to the last generation having grown up without addictive technology.

I now cherish the fact that I (and M.C. Hammer) belong to generations that knew how to sit on a toilet without holding a smartphone.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.