The poet Wendell Berry once wrote a poem simply titled How To Be A Poet. It opens like this:
“Make a place to sit down. Sit down. Be quiet.”
It continues with a gentle admonition to “Communicate slowly… For patience joins time to eternity.” And then it concludes with this beautiful stanza:
“Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.”
Silence. Stillness. Quiet. To Wendell Berry, these are prerequisites to the slow, delicate bringing forth of a poem, and therefore of creativity itself.
But not everyone feels as fondly as this soulful bard about silence. To many of us, being alone with our thoughts is undesirable, even frightening.
A study published in Science found that 65 percent of men and 25 percent of women would rather give themselves an electric shock than sit quietly for 6 to 15 minutes.
In other words, the majority of men and a quarter of women would rather cause themselves pain than be still and think for the amount of time it takes to sip a cup of coffee.
An article published in Fast Company called You’re bored. Here’s what that really means, by Tracy Brower, examines the phenomenon of boredom and its implications for a person’s life.
First, Brower points out that boredom has become trendy.
True enough. Boredom is often commented on as either a creeping, destructive disease plaguing our adolescents or the key to unlocking life-changing creativity. It has been vilified and celebrated in equal measure, begging the question: is it the solution to our problems or the problem in the first place?
If you search “boredom and creativity” innumerable articles and research studies will queue up on your browser like planes over Atlanta. They all contain information about how states of boredom can stimulate associative thought and, therefore, creativity.
A BBC Worklife article called How Moments of Boredom Help Us Achieve More noted that boredom can trigger your brain to investigate “creative outlets” by indicating that your status quo is lacking something. Author Vivian Giang wrote, “Letting your mind wander, especially with today’s technological distractions… is crucial for creativity and we can really only be in this state if our mind is idle.”
Amy Fries, author of the book Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers, also commented on boredom. “This calm and slightly detached state, which is the hallmark of daydreaming, helps to ‘quiet the noise’ so that we can experience the answer or connection,” Fries said.
But the problem is that listlessness does not always lead to violent bursts of innovation. Sometimes it does the opposite.
If you google “boredom and teenagers” another slew of articles about the dangers of boredom for adolescents will crowd your screen like shoppers on Black Friday.
For example, in 2003, The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that often-bored teens were 50 percent more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs.
The negative effects of boredom are not limited to teens, either. Boredom may also have had something to do with one of King David’s greatest sins – committing adultery with Bathsheba.
The story comes from 2 Samuel 11, a chapter that opens, “Then it happened in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem.” (NASB).
The information to catch is that “at time of year when kings usually went out to battle”, David sent his generals to war while he himself stayed at home. And then one night, when David couldn’t sleep, he went out on his roof and saw a lovely woman bathing. The rest is history.
It’s impossible to know if David was bored at the exact moment when he first saw Bathsheba. But the Bible does make it clear that David had chosen idleness at a time when he should have busied himself with running his kingdom. It is this indolence that paved the way for his temptation and eventual sin.
Clearly, boredom is a mixed bag. Hero or villain? Maybe there’s one more clarification to make.
Let’s return to Tracy Brower’s Fast Company article. After citing several studies about the creative potential boredom can hold, Brower stops to say, “These studies are impressive, but in reality, the benefits of boredom may be related to having time to clear your mind, be quiet or daydream.” In other words, boredom’s advantages may be correlated with what you do with your boredom, not the state itself.
Perhaps the power of boredom is that it provides a doorway out of itself—to better or worse opportunities. Turning boredom into mindfulness practice or creativity-enhancing daydreaming will be extremely rewarding while letting idleness sap all the momentum out of your plans will have the opposite effect.
Wendell Berry used times of quiet and low stimulation to compose poetry. King David let lack of industry turn into one of his lowest moments as a king and a human.
Boredom is neither the savior or the culprit in these scenarios. It is simply a space in which we can exercise our God-given and God-honoring ability to choose. Because it is our choices that define the direction of our lives, tempered with a healthy dose of grace.