A child walking down the street nearly bumped into me as he did something with his smartphone. In the laundromat, a brother and sister sat side-by-side; each staring at a different video. On the subway train, a boy of not more than six played a video game. None of these children was bored.
Much of my childhood was filled with long stretches of boredom. I grew up in a primitive age when television stations still signed off late at night and did not start back up again for hours. Sometimes, with only a handful of channels to watch, there as nothing that could keep my attention. I could go and knock on the neighbor boy’s front door; but he might not be there . . . or his parents might not let him come out and play. I could not send surreptitious text messages. No one could send me links to videos on the Internet. I could go and read a book. Truth be known, though – books were most often neglected companions. And my parents, as patient as they were with their son who tended to hover around adults more than most children, sometimes told me to go outside and play.
Many were the times when I was cast out of the house, like an exile, onto our lonely street. I could see the bicycles of other children leaning against front stoops. I could see my breath in the cool autumn air. In those moments, with nothing and no one who could distract me, I found myself utterly bored.
Lacking companions or passive narratives on a fuzzy television set, I spent a lot of time sitting on the front steps. Sometimes I did simple things like watch the birds flying about; or squirrels balancing along phone lines. Sometimes I’d sit there and notice that, without specific thoughts, I was very much aware of the moment (an awareness I sometimes need to meditate in order to achieve now). Other times I would even sit there and think.
When thinking, I would turn ideas and situations around in my mind and look at them from different angles. Two-dimensional experiences took on new complexity. What was meant when so-and-so said that? What was going on when . . . ? That boredom, much despised, made space for me to develop greater depth of perception. It helped me learn to reflect upon life and interactions with others.
At times, I found myself filling the apparent void with narratives of my own devising. I would make up stories. Sometimes I would transform the objects of ordinary life, left in solitude like I was, into new creations made possible by my imaginings. I explored landscapes on far-away planets. I developed changed relationships with people I knew. Or I imagined people I’d like to know . . . or at least vanquish in battle.
Boredom was like an unformed lump of clay. I could let it sit there and see it as nothing more than a piece of wet dirt. I could sharpen my perception and see the small flecks of crystals, or slight variations in colours. Or I could take hold of it and fashion it into something. Boredom presented me with choice. And it often took me deep inside myself and gave me opportunities to explore creative expression.
I am not saying that the adventures of video games or the encountering of someone else’s creativity does not offer a child meaningful development of imagination. But, there is something truly wonderful about that wholly unformed ‘piece of clay’ that one finds when no one is shaping an ’empty’ moment.
I think all children benefit from a mixture of encountering the creativity of others and discovering creativity of their own. Because of this, I wish that every child will have long and frequent moments of boredom. May that blessing open them to the wonder of imagination that is completely their own.