Bring on the boredom: the paradox of the path

Years ago, at a family gathering with cousins and aunts and uncles rubbing shoulders and shaking hands, I uttered words for which I was shamed and even scolded.

We were in the hills of Iowa at my uncle’s pig farm. He was the eldest uncle. His children were at least a decade older than me, if not two. The toys that lingered in the farmhouse from their youth were minimal and seemed outdated. Although I loved my cousins, they had nothing new to offer me either.

“Mom, I’m bored!!!” I whined loudly, as if my pronouncement meant that everyone ought to resolve my discomfort.

My mother said nothing. Instead, she nodded and returned her attention to the nearby adults. Likely used to my outbursts, she knew when it was appropriate to correct my behaviors, when a response was necessary.

An aunt who didn’t know me as well chimed in. She was the wife of my uncle, the pig farmer. “No one is allowed be bored here! There is always something to do!” The tone of her voice and the scowl on her face told me that I had committed a mortal sin for allowing myself to become bored, and, even worse, to complain about it.

Ever since, I have struggled to hush her judgement.

Photo by Susan Holt Simpson on Unsplash

My calendar has been crammed with all sorts of activity lately, all of it great. Yet, the buzz of service has me feeling spent. My mind and soul feel clogged by distraction and jumbled by excessive input. Although what I am going through has cramped my contemplative and creative style, I suspect that the pace I’ve been keeping lately is much more like the one most Americans maintain. It’s an accidental act of solidarity for me–a Franciscan sister with the privilege of poverty and prayer–to enter into the frenzy of noise and commotion that defines modern life for so many.

And, in this visit to the place of a-lot-is-going-on and every-screen-and-electronic-device-is-adding-noise, I have discovered that the spirit is inviting me into the sacred space of boredom, a place that my aunt shunned and I was taught to fear in my youth.

In his essay,  James K.A. Smith, “In Praise of Boredom,” (Image Journal, Issue 99) writes. “In a world of incessant distraction, the way out might look like learning how to be bored. A little ennui could go a long way; it could be the wardrobe we need now. We need to learn how to be bored in order to wean ourselves off distraction and open ourselves to others and the Other—to make ourselves available for irruptions of grace.”

I agree. Boredom is beautiful. It’s a grace to enter into the sacred spaces where we not sure how to be with ourselves or what to do. The opportunity of being uncomfortable in the moment and of feeling lost in open space, allows a chance to listen deeper than the complications and distractions offered by our screens and devices and the repeated human habit of seeking pleasure and comfort. Instead, in the cracks and pauses, we can become open to the Spirit stirring in our hearts and minds. We can lean in to the loving presence of God. I have come to believe that boredom is actually essential to healthy spiritual living.

“Sunrise at Marywood” photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

A few years ago, I packed up my high school classroom and moved to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. Here, I’ve been on staff at Marywood Franciscan Spirituality Center and savoring the quiet and beauty of the Northwoods, while helping to offer retreats, programs, and good hospitality. Before I arrived, I heard a repeated concern that I would be “bored” in the woods, that it could be too tough for me. It’s laughable now, of course, because my life here has been anything but boring, but I can understand how city-dwellers might make such an assumption about rural life.

In a few weeks, I will be packing up again, moving back to Chicago to begin an internal FSPA ministry: living alongside our novices as a finally professed sister. And the paradox of the path of my life is that I anticipate that entering into this new phase will actually allow me to be much more bored than living and serving at Marywood. For this boredom, and the graces it could open, I say, “Bring it on!”

Again

I tense up slightly as I see my daughter toddling over to me holding the telltale green and blue box, replete with several cartoon dinosaurs staring up at me. “Me want to do dinosaur puzzle,” she says.

“Please,” I entreat. “Not the dinosaur puzzle. We’ve done the dinosaur puzzle six times today.” I can’t take the dinosaur puzzle again. I could put the Iguanadon and his friends together in my sleep. “Please, pick something else.”

Her eyes and chin start to do her trademark wobble, indicating that the begging is about to begin. “But, me want to do dinosaur puzzle with you,” she implores. I quickly scan the room and realize that my options of finding a better activity are, in all honestly, very slim. Even if I could convince her to do something else, what would it be? Pony coloring back? 3 times today. Dress up tea party? 4 times today. Give a stuffed animal a doctor check-up? 8 times today. She is in the age of learning by repetition, and dinosaur puzzle or not, I am being called to sit and watch her do something slowly that I have already sat and watched her do slowly several times today. “Fine,” I sigh. “Dinosaur puzzle.” “Yeah!” She squeals, and she upends its 48 large pieces onto the kitchen floor and ponderously begins unraveling its mysteries once again.

I sit next to her and bear witness to the saga as it unfolds. I’m not allowed to help, she can do it “all by meself;” I am merely supposed to confirm and encourage, and perhaps offer the occasionally helpful “oh, that doesn’t look quite right.”. At moments like this I am often tempted to retreat into a distraction. I pull out my phone and scan the news. I stand up and start to peruse the mail. But I can’t do this long before I get a small scowly face and a chiding, “Daddy, you not watching.” She knows when I’m not paying attention to her, or am only pretending to do so. “Sorry honey. Ok, I’m watching. Oh, look, you got another piece in.”

In my youth I always dreamed of having the chance to suffer mightily on behalf of others. I imagined I would be a missionary, braving cold, hunger, and every deprivation. I have rarely encountered such trials. However, one cross that I have frequently and fruitfully born is that of boredom.

Boredom is a hardship we don’t often think about because it’s so terribly unromantic. In fact, in our distracted, stimulation obsessed age boredom of any intensity, of any length of time, is seen as a vice. We flee from ourselves and our own thoughts, sometimes to the point of preferring pain just so we can have something to focus on.

In our collective flight from boredom, we frequently commit grave sin against ourselves and others. We ignore our children, because their tedious games bore us. We ignore our parents and the elderly, because we’ve already heard the stories they are going to tell. We ignore the dull or those less educated than ourselves, because their uninteresting conversation wastes our valuable time. Recently I had several parishioners tell me how tired they are of hearing about disaster relief and social justice protests – are we still talking about those things? Underlying all of these is the same subtle lie that is embedded in every sin – I am more important than you. My time is more important than your time. What I want is more important than what you need.

But perhaps the person I wound most gravely when I refuse to endure boredom is myself. For isn’t there something really sad and broken about someone, about all of us, when we stop seeing things for what they are? Every person I meet is a gift from God, is a son or daughter of the almighty. My boredom is caused by my blindness. As C.S. Lewis reminds us,

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship… there are no ordinary people. (The Weight of Glory).

Even boring tasks are frequently a chance to converse with God, and to remind oneself of the raw glory and wonder of mere existence. When I too quickly dismiss boredom with an external panacea, I miss the chance to fight through to the other side, where God renews my sight and becomes my vision.

courtesy of Steven Cottam

So I turn my attention back to the dinosaur puzzle… which is coming together, slowly but surely. The apatosaurus is half done now. My daughter’s toddling, repetitious play is just a phase, and the truth is I will sorely miss it when it has passed. My attention is my gift to her, and her reminder of what matters is her gift to me. Simone Weil said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” I will give it to as many as I can, and I will try to do so gladly. When it is hard I will merely ask God that, like all sacrifices made out of love, it might bear much fruit.

 

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.