Ways of Seeing by Cheryl Mitchell: Boredom can become a luxury

“This is so boring, Gaga!” Our three year old granddaughter looked at me with delight in her eyes. She was busily engaged rolling out dough and using her favorite cookie cutters. 

I was taken aback and was about to correct her by saying something like “But Lucretia, this is the project you asked to do and you seem to be enjoying it.” Or “Lucretia, do you know what boring means?” 

Fortunately, I just kept my mouth shut and smiled back at her. After more such statements in the following days, I realized she was trying out a new power phrase learned from her older cousin. 

Unlike the potty-talk that is also sure to grab adult attention, this phrase is non-offensive and very effective. It carries the suggestion that somehow we adults have failed to provide the child with appropriate activities and entertainment. 

For a while, I mulled over how sad it is that our children live in such a fast-paced world. That they expect outside stimulation and novelty. Then I overheard her older cousin Ramona’s mother tell her daughter how lucky she was to be bored. That boredom opens space for creativity and imagination and inspiration to enter our lives.

A month later, at our dinner group, we were sharing our dreams for the new year. Our beautiful host’s daughter, an exemplary student, dressage rider, organ player, newspaper editor … said she just wished she would remember to take time to enjoy the beauty of Vermont and the pleasure of friendships in a relaxed way. I said it would be lovely to feel caught up all the time and not have the pressure of unfinished projects hanging over me. 

A friend from the group sent us an article about Niksen: the Dutch concept of doing absolutely nothing. Staring out of the window on a moving train, rocking on your front porch, laying back in a grassy field. The Dutch see it as a well-accepted, restorative practice. Far from being ashamed or guilty that they aren’t overly busy all the time, they know such openings make us healthier, happier, and actually more productive. 

In my childhood we would have called it daydreaming, in our hippie years it would have been called vegging out. May Sarton has a beautiful description of it in her poem Beyond the Question:

 

But one must first become small,

Nothing but a presence

Attentive as a nesting bird,

Proffering no slightest wish,

No tendril of a wish

Toward anything that might happen

Or be given,

Only the warm, faithful waiting,

Contained in one’s smallness.

 

I came slowly to realize that the existence of “boredom” is a gift of privilege more than a curse of modern life. Last month we visited New Lanark, a cotton mill town in Scotland developed on practical and utopian principles by Robert Owen and his father-in-law. The then-common industrial practice was to pick up orphans from the streets of big cities, call them “apprentices,” work them nearly to death, and then dump them back in the cities when their “apprenticeship” was over. The mind- and body-numbing work didn’t offer any opportunity to be bored. The moment you stopped paying attention to the huge machines was the moment you were likely to be killed or maimed. 

In a radical departure, New Lanark invited whole families to come live in the town, provided housing and access to fresh foods, stipulated that children under age ten must attend school rather than work in the mills, reduced the length of the working day, provided health care, and allowed those too old to work to stay in their homes. 

Owen established the first infant school in the world at New Lanark and one of the first full programs of continuing education for adults. Schooling was provided for both girls and boys. The curriculum was based on experiential learning, mutual respect between teachers and students, music, dancing, art, and a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. 

Although their days were strictly scheduled, these children may have had moments when it was safe to day dream. Some of them may have grown to be the voices that pushed for social reforms across the world.

This morning, when I stopped by Lucretia’s house, she was doing an energetic dance to a song she was making up: “it’s so boring, everything is boring, it’s so boring today.” I smiled and hoped that there will be a few mornings in the coming weeks, when instead of writing out my long list of things to do for the day, I just dance around and do nothing so that the spirit can enter in.

Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at cheryl.w.mitchell@gmail.com.

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