26 October 2017

Boredom for dummies

The Columbia River, from the Amtrak Empire Builder.
... I don't have time for those who don't know what time is.

These words from Boris Pasternak came back to me during the long, slow hours we spent on Amtrak's trains from New York City to Chicago, and then from Chicago to Portland, Oregon.

To tell you the truth, I really needed those long, slow hours of sitting by the train window and letting time carry me into my future. In my last weeks and days in Elektrostal, time went by with dizzying speed, and my mind struggled to keep up, storing up impressions and sensations against the uncertainties of that future. It's likely that we'll never live in Russia again. (Yes, we hope to visit, but even that is uncertain. In any case, I don't think we'll ever again be residents.)

We are learning about gravitational waves rippling through space and time, thanks to Albert Einstein and the recent LIGO observations. For most of us, it's not news that time also seems to be experienced in waves, now compressed and now just dragging along. I love living in the moment, but slow moments, and stretched-out periods where time nearly seems to stop, are equally precious to me.

Trackside at Shelby, Montana.
In a moment of unguarded boastfulness, I once said that I was never bored. That claim didn't stop me from preparing for the transatlantic flight and the train trip by loading my Amazon Fire with episodes of Doctor Who and the Vietnam War series, along with two novels, two books of theology, a history of Protestant missions, and two autobiographies -- by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland and American astronaut Scott Kelly. But much of the time, day and night, I just watched the country scroll past the window. I felt no pressure to savor or memorize or store up -- I just let the planet be the planet and me be me.

Boredom is not a problem to be solved. It is the last privilege of a free mind.

These words open Gayatri Devi's essay on boredom, published on the Guardian Web site about two years ago. Her essay seems to assume a definition of boredom as a state of discontent resulting from lack of external stimulation. (Dictionaries, on the other hand, often seem to focus on boredom as a state resulting from the wrong kind of stimulation -- tedious, repetitive, uninteresting.) She rightly recommends not curing boredom by reaching for new sources of stimulus, such as the ever-handy smartphone. Instead, she recommends "metathinking" -- in a sense, observing yourself as you slide into boredom, considering what makes you bored, "how your mind responds to boredom, what you feel and think when you get bored."

I would just add a couple of things that are, maybe, already implied in Gayatri Devi's advice:
  • Learn to enjoy your own company. This doesn't mean to give yourself a free pass on everything that might appear on a Fourth Step AA inventory -- but look beyond your imperfections to the whole of yourself, the person whose God-given mind is capable of thought, reflection, observation, intention, reconciliation, synthesis of old and new ideas, and so much more. That apparently empty period of time, whether it's at on a slow train or in line at a bank, is just a golden opportunity to get to spend some time with your complicated self. (Learning to enjoy your own company is a good step toward confronting temptation and addiction. God loved you into being, as Anthony Bloom said, so it's time to look at yourself with God's loving intention in mind.)
  • Reframe slow time as prayer time. You can ask God or your own memory banks for prayer concerns that you may have forgotten or just heard about or that simply beg for your attention. Devi mentions Wordsworth's daffodils; you might instead choose or form a short prayer along the lines of the prayers I mention here....
Make me an instrument of your peace.


Lord Jesus, have mercy.

I want to dwell in you.

Back in 2011, I wrote about reading Pasternak's words about time as I sat waiting my turn at the bank branch in Elektrostal.

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