I Remember Boredom

Posted on July 10, 2010


I love history, partly because I enjoy seeing how people lived long ago. I’ve visited dozens of mansions, homesteads, and estates, as well as simpler homes, taking the guided tour whenever one is offered. I pay special attention to the descriptions of the kitchen, of all the related jobs and how they were done. You need go back only a few generations to take a peek into a different way of life. Collecting enough water to keep the household running was a major effort. Food had to be grown, harvested, and stored. People made candles and tools and clothing. They sheared their own sheep and spun the wool into yarn. They split wood and cared for their livestock. And on and on. I always leave those tours with the same question: “What is it that we do with all of our time now?”

The answer, more and more, seems to be that we look for ways to amuse ourselves. We have gone, in less that two hundred years, from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Entertainment Age. All the while, we have steadily lost our ability to be uncomfortable, or even bored.

I tried this little experiment with each of our children. We’d be out in the car and one of them would say, “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m hungry,” or “I’m hot.” And I’d answer, “Okay.” Then I would wait. Within thirty seconds, I’d hear. “Well?” The implication was clear: Discomfort was intolerable. If it was 68 degrees that was too cold and if it was 73 degrees that was too hot and if they wanted a drink they expected me to stop at the next convenience store. Not exactly “I want an Oompa-Loompa and I want it now,” but close.

I sometimes suggested to my kids that they just be hungry or thirsty or hot or cold. Maybe there was no way for me to help relieve those feelings at the moment. But even if there was, should I have? Always, and immediately? Is it so terrible to be uncomfortable for a little while? I tried not to launch into the speech about people all over the world who never have enough food to eat or clean water to drink, who live in stifling heat or numbing cold, who sit on the floor or sleep on the ground — because at some point, not too far in, I’d begin to feel guilty myself. My tolerance for discomfort wasn’t that much wider than that of my kids. But I am old enough to remember when entertainment was like dessert: something to be looked forward to, a treat. Today, entertainment is a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet.

When I was a young boy, we had seven television channels, and they were free. If the president was giving a speech, I re-read my comic books. In the early 1970s we got cable, which we paid for, but which was also wonderfully devoid of commercials. Ten years later the VCR appeared, allowing us to tape our favorite show while everyone went to Sears to look at paint colors. That was pretty cool, when it worked. Today cable and satellite bring hundreds of channels into our homes. It’s expensive and a great deal of the programming time is devoted to commercials. So now we’re paying a lot of money to watch television and advertisements. We still have the ability to record shows, but we don’t do it. We buy them. We have collections of classic sitcoms, season by season, along with libraries of movies, collecting dust on shelves. Instead of watching them, we go to the movie theater. There we pay eleven dollars for a ticket, another ten for popcorn and a drink, and then sit down to watch fifteen minutes of commercials and previews before the film starts.

Music is downloadable and can be stored by the truckload on tiny devices. Phones take pictures, record video, and send text messages. We can communicate with people halfway around the world, while we completely ignore the person sitting next to us. We can take our songs, movies, and e-books wherever we go. We can be entertained constantly, and never have to be bored again. Which is good, because we’ve lost our tolerance for boredom. Our cell phones don’t just ring; they serenade us. Video games and the Internet have merged, allowing us to pretend we’re killing total strangers in other countries. Not content with playing games, we can now watch other people play: pool, poker, and yes, video games.

Even personal hygiene has to be exciting. Showers are exhilarating, with soaps and body washes called “Full Force,” High Endurance,” and “Icy Blast.” Shaving is a thrill ride, too, with razors named “Xtreme,” “Mach3 Turbo,” and “Quattro Power.” Beverages are called “Full Throttle” and “Monster Energy.” We can’t even brush our teeth or wash our hair without being knocked on our butts. It’s a dilemma when, occasionally, I don’t want to experience a tidal wave or an Arctic freeze, I don’t want anything to erupt, explode, or burst, and I don’t want my teeth to melt, my brain to vaporize, or my body to go into convulsions; I just want to chew some gum.

Everything, it seems, is overdone. We don’t say hello anymore. Now we send someone a SHOUT OUT.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to the simpler times of two hundred years ago, because it may have been a little too simple. The bathroom was outside and the beds were filled with straw. Soap had names like “Soap.” Even shampoo and toothpaste had names like “Soap.” Entertainment was limited to reading a book, listening to someone play music, or engaging in something I think they called conversation. But I bet people didn’t complain about being bored. There was no time.