When Kevin Gary tells people he researches boredom in the classroom, they always respond the same way: “Man, that sounds really interesting.”
He gets the joke. Boredom sounds boring. But as he argues in his new book, Why Boredom Matters, that feeling of restlessness has bothered people for a long time. And how we respond to tedium says something essential about our ideas of what it means to be human and what it means to live a meaningful life.
He argues that if we want people to flourish in the midst of our cacophony of stimulation and distraction—email, Twitter, TikTok—punctuated by the occasional void of “being stuck with your own thoughts,” then we’re going to have to learn to sit with boredom.
Gary spoke with CT about why we need to examine the habits we’ve developed and how we’ve taught children to deal with boredom in the classroom and the church pew.
Is boredom a moral problem? I feel like I get bored a lot and that seems like a moral failing on my part. Is that the right way to think of it?
There’s something significantly moral going on. Boredom poses a moral situation to us that we have to respond to.
Compare it with anger. You have the mood, anger, and we can think of right ways and wrong ways to respond to that. I think it’s similar with boredom. It’s a morally perilous situation, because we have to respond to it and the easiest ways to respond to it don’t lead to human flourishing.
A big part of the moral peril with boredom, though, is it kind of sneaks up on us. It’s not easy to notice. That’s why some ancient writers talk about it as “the noonday devil.” It comes in a way you don’t even notice and don’t even notice how you’ve responded. In that context, it’s a morally serious situation.
What are the options? How do we respond?
The most predominant way we contend with boredom is we just avoid it. We maneuver our way out of it. Our digital devices are perfect for that, giving us the stimulation we need to escape situations we find tedious.
The other really common solution is resignation. Studying education, I’ve been in a lot of K-12 classrooms that I as an adult found to be dreadfully boring. And I was amazed at how docile and compliant most of the students were. They would be, for 30 minutes, tasked with copying a PowerPoint, word for word. Or doing some rote worksheet activity. I was hoping for some revolution. But they resign themselves. They’ve learned to be oriented to the goal of their grade.
Is that a problem?
The problem is when you’ve been conditioned to be extrinsically focused, you lose the ability to attend to things for intrinsic value, to perceive that something could be meaningful on its own.
Kids are constantly taught to do school work for grades. That’s how they gauge their performance but also derive their satisfaction from whatever they’re doing. But for humans to flourish, we have to find value and meaning in the things we do, and not always be thinking about a payoff.
Think of something like playing chess. You play chess because you enjoy it—the aesthetic experience, applying your mind to the complexity of the board. You enjoy it intrinsically, because it’s a fascinating game. That’s not me. I don’t actually enjoy chess. But human flourishing looks like enjoying a game of chess, and we’ve been trained not to, because we need this extrinsic goal.
So maybe I think I can get a chess scholarship and that would make chess worthwhile. But chess can’t be good just because it’s good.
The bored mind is characterized by a lack of attention. It can’t attend to something that’s good. It’s not satisfied by the thing that would actually satisfy it. It’s the restless, roving mind, always on the lookout for stimulation and novelty.
Boredom is not unique to our culture, but I think in our moment it’s been amplified.
My kids, when they were smaller, would say they were bored and it was so tempting, as a parent, to give them an electronic device to distract them. But sometimes I wouldn’t. I’d just let them be bored. And they would hit a wall, and find new possibilities. At the other side of boredom was an explosion of creativity.
Environments that create a bit of discomfort, where you have to contend with the bored state, are really full of possibilities.
Your book focuses on the classroom, but I kept thinking about church. Have you been bored in church?
I’m often bored in church.
But it’s interesting, I’m a Catholic and I don’t find myself getting restless or bored during Scripture readings or the prayers. All the parts are the same, always, and repeated over and over. But that helps me enter into the Sabbath. It’s during the homily that I get this experience of boredom. I just sit there in my head.
Obviously different churches are different. I went to one church service that felt like an Avengers movie experience. They put in a lot of work to make sure it wasn’t boring!
But maybe that’s wrong? Maybe we should be bored in church.
Church services can be part of a boredom-avoidance scheme: “Let’s try to really entertaining with our music!” I do think that does us a disservice, because we’re guiding people to steer clear of boredom rather than engage with it.
It’s an uncomfortable mood state. But learning how to push through that to get to something enjoyable and meaningful is a discipline and, I would say, a virtuous practice.
With a liturgy, there’s nothing going on and then there are epiphanies where all of the sudden, significance breaks through. There’s a lot of tedium between the beginning and the end, but then there are moments of, Oh my gosh, this is joy. But you have to be patient with the bored state.
So what is the right response to boredom? How should I respond?
We can become practitioners of being fully present, which is a way of entering into leisure.
I have to give credit to Josef Pieper, whose work Leisure: the Basis of Culture has been one of my key guides. And he’s drawing from Thomas Aquinas.
What do you mean by leisure?
With leisure, I’m not thinking of vacation or escapism. We want to contrast “vegging out” with contemplative beholding. I would describe it as receptive attention that is able to appreciate what it’s beholding.
Pieper distinguishes different ways of beholding and identifies this kind of beholding as receptive. It’s not passive. There’s a receptivity in it, marked by delight.
We need focal practices to help us do that, develop the habit of attending. Going for a walk. Cooking a meal. Going to church. The liturgy can guide our attention.
In the Christian tradition, the idea of the Sabbath is an idea about how we can behold reality and really appreciate it and enjoy it. I think it’s really quite profound, that we need to take that posture of rest in God’s rest to see the truth of things. That’s not the passivity of a day off, nor is it resignation to boredom. But we also have to give up our avoidance schemes.
When you’re sitting in church and you’ve lost the thread of the homily and you’re bored, what do you do? Or if you don’t want to hold yourself up as the exemplar, what do you want to do?
More often than not, I just sit there in my head and mull around a bit. But I think that’s okay. I think that can be a good practice, to be in your head, thinking about your thoughts. I’ll ponder the Scripture and maybe compose my own sermon, how I would talk about them. That’s a way of attending to the text. But even if I’m not doing that, I think it’s a good thing to practice just sitting.
Apart from church, we no longer have many spaces where we sit with ourselves. I think there’s value in learning how to sit.