The Holy Uses of Boredom

Like many young boys, my father was my hero. But the stubborn facts of his life did not always cohere with my more fanciful whimsies. He starched his shirts and wore a pocket protector. He balled his socks and organized them by color. His office included a slide rule, several paperclips, and a box of saltines. He had very few interesting opinions on dinosaurs.

This is not to say that my father was boring, per se, just as you cannot say that a tree is boring simply because it stands still for long periods of time and changes in predictable intervals. But what I understood about my father was that great portions of his day required him to concentrate on tasks that seemed stupefyingly dull to the uninitiated.

Alkylation is the transfer of an alkyl group from one molecule to another. It is also the name of punk rock band that played one show at a The Crowbar in 1999 before falling off stage into a large puddle of urine.

As a mechanical engineer at an oil refinery, for instance, he might work on a project that would differentiate boiling points of hydrocarbons through methods of fractional distillation, reshaping containment units and optimizing extraction procedures. My father could speak at great length about paraffins, aromatics, naphthenes, cycloalkanes, and the recombination process known as alkylation. He knew things about metals, fuels, flow charts, and fluid systems that could not be worked into an anecdote without training manuals and could not possibly have helped him flirt with girls.

“This poem on madrigals is soooooooooo interesting! Much more interesting than talking to living girls!” — John Keats

The datum, equations, procedures, and tedium of my father’s work were far removed from the musings of John Keats, and they are the ultimate refutation to the poet’s belief in the beauty of truth. The refinement of petroleum is as rooted in fact as all great science, but there is none of the immediate sensual pleasure that we find in the Romantics’ bowers, streams, and song birds. After all, they call oil “crude.”

But here’s the twist — my father loved his work. In many important ways, it was the most noble part of his life. It allowed him to painstakingly untangle the myriad and byzantine equations of chemistry, physics, economics, and human relations that so fully constitute the structures of modern existence that they are largely invisible to the oblivious masses. It did more than show my father that life was about something. It made my father about something.

I’ve successfully completed 128 levels of deliciously designed puzzles. Dear God… I’ve wasted my life.

In retrospect, it is probably good that he did the bulk of this work in the era before smart phones, the Internet, and GIFs. It is hard today to understand the Herculean feats of strength it required to sit alone in an office hour after hour, the only sound the scratching of pencil on a legal pad, the lone distraction a shaft of light slowly herding the shadows across the room. No one sent my father a selfie. Twitter was several decades from its ceaseless nattering. There was no need to arrange rows and columns of colorful pixels into a crush of candy.

Today, boredom is perhaps the pain we flee most frequently. It’s an old problem, really; Kierkegaard called it the root of all evil, the stubborn refusal to be oneself. Pascal believed that all of man’s problems originated in his inability to sit quietly in a room alone. But there’s something new to today’s struggle with boredom — more than mere avoidance, we seek to tranquilize it with the constant distraction of multitasking. I listen to books on CD while driving. Sometimes I watch TV while reading an article. I’ve checked my email three times since beginning this essay. When I talk to my students about utopias, most admit they couldn’t live in a perfect society. Paradise is boring; paradise, we believe, is actually a form of hell.

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal

Now, as a teacher, I am frequently asked by students the point of English class. It seems so archaic — the poetry, the novels, the grammar — read and annotated and discussed and atomized. Hundreds of sentences, many of them unbearable exercises in monotony. I help them dissect great works of literature, draining them of their colors and liveliness in an effort to organize and catalogue. It is right for them to ask why. They should know why teachers have insisted for generations that we push back against the cupcakes and confetti of edu-tainment.

“…For there it is, friend, the whole infinite miracle of nature in every tuft of grass, if we have only eyes to see it…” — Charles Kingsley

So here’s what I honestly believe: If you can push through the monotony with tenacity and stubbornness, you arrive at something startling. The inner clockwork of beauty. The interconnectedness of a landscape to a mind, the purity of an irreducibly honest thought. The infinite density of a single minute of pure concentration. Boredom has its holy uses. It may actually be the surest path to God.

I’m not saying that you must resign yourself to a monastic existence, because that would exclude roller coasters and Jason Bourne movies and falling in love, and those are all really great things. But the first thing I tell students is that everything is an argument, and understanding the full scope of this argument will require sustained attentiveness.

The next great man or woman you meet will likely not be walking and talking with a Bluetooth headset or interrupting a conversation to respond to a text message. She will be studying quietly, looking for patterns, pencil in hand, brow fretted in absorption. Her shirt may be stiff, and she may quietly munch on crackers. But do not mistake them. These people are heroes.