How to break through quarantine boredom.
Is it just me, or are we collectively sick of social distancing? It was cute for a while. A welcome break from our routines, perhaps, or a sudden stay-cation and permission to indulge in comforting pleasures. But now it feels stale — that apocalyptic spice dulled into a pressing sense that something needs to change to account for the 2-meter space and breathing through masks.
I, too, suppressed my feelings underneath a starch-induced paralysis. Baked bread and made soup until it dripped out of my ears (still haven’t mastered the art of “half-portions”). Last week, I saw Ireland, my home, extend its lockdown and squash any hope for Summer plans. It forced me to rethink my perspective of this isolation and find a way to turn my stay-cation into a sabbatical. But that new imperative and redirection come with answerless questions and an old, familiar, unyielding quiet restlessness — boredom.
Boredom: an opportunity for creative breakthroughs
I learned quickly as a child to hide my boredom and, definitely, not go to my mom and exclaim: “I’m bored.” Any gripe like that would be met with swift instructions:
“Well, if you’re so bored, then you can pick up pine-cones in the yard.”
So I stayed silent to keep from picking up hundreds of sharp needle seeds underneath the blanket of North Carolina Summer heat. In time, though, video games, school assignments, and managing pubescent hormonal waves filled my time. Then, university, music, dating, Netflix, making money.
But, at some point, before all those distractions, I did manage my boredom without filling it with media consumption. (Ah the 1990s…) Back before I could squash any peep of boredom with the world’s knowledge, endless videos, and words with friends, I ran from imaginary enemies, wrote poetry that may have made me the next Emily Dickinson if I had leaned into my hermetic tendencies, stared up at the sky, and made friends with parts of myself I’ve since forgotten.
Yet, boredom seems different as a grown-up. Not a call to listen but to be filled — “With what?” is becoming harder to answer. While reading outside, my neighbor stirred me. “It’s so boring.” She said. “No work, so nothing to do.” I didn’t have my conversation cap on, so I probably told her some nonsense — that everything will be fine and to take things day by day. In reflection, she was reaching out from vulnerability and teaching me how aimless time can be a gift. Sure, boredom can be torturous but only as long as we anchor into a work-focused mindset, searching for peace in productivity.
I feel sort of betrayed by this black piece of plastic I carry around in my pocket. Why do my efforts to satiate my boredom with Twitter witticisms and Youtube DIY leave me feeling empty? I’ve watched almost every Gordon Ramsay cooking tutorial and still can’t find that “lovely, beautiful, deliciously creamy scrambled egg consistency.” “Dogfood!” I can hear him say.
Quarantine isolation feels like a challenge for which I don’t have the tools to meet, and my education did not prepare me for this time. At first, Netflix and my chess habit were ways to disconnect from nagging news or worry less about work. Yet, now even earning money is difficult, and I, like you, am one part of this Great Wait. Almost two months in a depressive wave washed over me. I found a rock bottom in my screen-filled dysphoria in which all stimuli became numb and unsatisfying.
I don’t have to look far to see signs that we are overdue for collective healing. More reports of nightmares, domestic strife, and alcohol or substance use show me that our usual coping mechanisms break under more anxiety and fear.
It may also be that people are simply sleeping more or reflecting upon their work and finding that they feel alienated from their labor and community. Perhaps they are symptoms of a toxic relationship to work and how we spend our time.
Create culture, don’t just consume it
My numbness to Netflix shows that I no longer resonate with that image of culture. Then, an abscess became apparent — consuming culture is not a path to find one’s integrity or identity. Only by expressing and embellishing my subjective perspective can I find satisfaction even if it feels silly or stupid. Scarier still, at the pit of that despair, I found a seething sense that I neglected my creative drive. My inspirational voice lay dormant behind the crowd of voices telling me to “work hard,” “stay productive,” “make money,” and not waste time on profitless efforts.
I don’t need to tell you that we live during a unique time in the human experience in which it is imperative to find beauty at this crossroads. By reframing perspectives of this shutdown away from the pervasive fear-narratives, we can shift our mindsets towards better alternatives and reclaim agency of our own thoughts. Paying attention to the news, Netflix, or, really, anything outside your personal experience is to give away this vital restorative energy to icons and drivel.
The Bard of psychedelics, Terence McKenna, has a fascinating lecture that is pulling my ear to be referenced. He urges us to experience the “felt presence of direct experience.” That seems to be Terrance’s fancy terminology calling us to marinate in our personal experience and “stop consuming culture and, instead, start creating culture.”
“[Icons and media] are all cultural diversions, and what is REAL is you and your friends. Your associations. Your highs. Your orgasms. Your hopes. Your plans. Your fears.” — McKenna
To yield this energy to culture is to resume the status quo narrative, one step above sucking your thumb on the couch. It tells us every day that our creative contributions are unimportant. It says: Fear the unknown. Fear your isolation. Fear everything outside of what it tells you even that which comes from your own mind.
It’s not about writing the next great American novel or reviving a quarantine-rock anthem. Creativity is just the means of reclaiming control and telling your own story. So often, I feel like a spectator, and nothing in my life has made me feel powerless quite like sitting indoors watching the world shutter to a standstill. I may not have the ways to fix whatever is happening outside, but inside, here, at the end of my fingertips, is something I can control and manipulate. Quality be damned.
Why we fear boredom
What’s worse is that gazing at idols or consuming culture conditions me to believe that the solution to my boredom is outside of myself. We’re afraid of boredom because we start to hear the voices of unquiet discomfort and dissatisfaction.
Only by working with this restlessness will we be able to catch those cracking whips of the productivity-mindset. It isn’t always easy, nor pleasant to search for our own unique truths or investigate our own curiosities. But by taking small steps toward introspection and creative reflection, maybe, we can rediscover some inherent wisdom within each of us. I’m sure we’ll find some strength, at least, in pushing past some steadfast resistance or a breath of peace by breaking toxic habits.
If I could have a conversation do-over with my bored neighbor, then I’d ask her:
What sort of things did you do as a child when you were bored?
As a child, no authority or government told me that I was wasting my time by toying with my imagination. The problem comes when we start to become our own oppressors. I filled my own mind with doubtful thoughts that urged me to “be more productive,” “use time wisely” or, the bane of any bored child in the South, “Idle hands are devils…” whatever.
Now, when all these leaders and forces can seem to do is surprise me with their incompetence, I’m supposed to continue listening to idols and powerbrokers? I don’t think so.
Curiosity is the first step to creativity
So let’s stop “fixing” or “filling” boredom but relish it, instead. It is an opportunity to quiet the mind’s eternal chatter and listen to the voice that wants to be heard. When I feel blocked, then I breathe and be blocked. It passes and when inspiration comes, then I listen.
What is a project that you have wanted to do but didn’t have the time? What passions have you put aside because of other priorities or more material concerns? When you see or wonder something, can you take that thought one step further?
We’ve dug ourselves into a consumptive hole and need to invent new ways to get out of it. It was all fine and dandy while we had work to exhaust us and vistas to view, but now it leaves a lot to be desired.
So, I’m experimenting without expectations until I can begin to find a flow that carries me. As I try to create my own content stream, I begin to see the empty pointlessness in asking: What should I watch now?
I’m beginning to see this time as a hard reset — a time to see what ideas and habits are working for me and which ones are keeping me from a more pleasant life.
My Instagram feed will be there when I get back to it. Netflix can be watched by someone else — I won’t get jealous. I’ll take a pen and paper and sip a few deep breaths with a little Thelonius Monk, please.
Take all the time you need, and be kind to yourself.