Editorial: Curb Your Enthusiasm; The Upside of Boredom

We come today to praise boredom, not to bury it — because, truthfully, that’s not going to happen anyway.

Regular readers of this page probably have long suspected that we harbor a soft spot for boredom, but the proximate cause of today’s reflection is a column on last Tuesday’s Close-Up page by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post.

The column centered on an essay titled Boredom’s Paradox by Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University who cited a 2010 study that found 66 percent of high school students were bored “at least every day.”

On reading this, our first thought was, “Who said that the public schools no longer prepare students well for the workplace?” Surely even the most interesting jobs involve a certain number of boring tasks. Heart surgeons must have to fill out endless paperwork in between saving people’s lives. And any newspaper reporter will tell you that once you have written a couple of weather stories, the thrill is definitely gone when you are asked to produce yet another.

But confining boredom to the vocational realm seems somehow reductionist. There are many reasons to embrace it on the merits. For instance, war is often described as “long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” Given the choice, who would not prefer boredom in those circumstances? In this light, boredom appears as a genuinely benign state of mind.

But even in more quotidian pursuits, there’s something to be said for being bored. For instance, many people find watching baseball boring. This is to miss the point completely. It is precisely in the periods of inaction that baseball’s underlying charm is revealed. For the fan who savors the game, some of the most interesting moments occur in between pitches, in the interaction among catcher, pitcher, batter, baserunner, coach and umpire as the signs are given for the next pitch. All it takes to relieve perceived boredom at the ballpark is paying close enough attention to learn and appreciate the game within the game. Not that we’re expecting the digital generation to get behind this program; the attention span of a gnat is fundamentally out of sympathy with baseball’s imperatives.

Another activity that rewards boredom is reading. As with jobs, many books worth reading have their boring parts, often because they’re hard to understand. Fighting through those periods of sheer boredom is often necessary to fully comprehend what the author is trying to convey. This is not to suggest that there’s something wrong with reading for entertainment, only that entertainment should be understood expansively enough to contemplate the necessity of slogging through some less than sparkling prose. Yes, we know that many a voyage through Moby Dick founders on Melville’s exhaustive and exhausting digression into cetology, but this really only makes the point.

Finally, we make the case that true thought can only occur in a state of mental blankness that is sometimes a close cousin to boredom — when absent other stimulation, the mind must fall back on its own resources. In this case, the result of boredom becomes its opposite in a way that all the external excitement in the world cannot replicate.