Monday, April 1, 2013

On Boredom

 I'm not talking about the "nausea of ennui" discussed from Seneca ("many who judge life to be not bitter, but superfluous") to Sartre, that total lack of interest in anything that makes it difficult for some to get out of bed in the morning, but of that feeling that overcomes us when we are required to do something painfully tedious.

We often elevate simple boredom to the lofty realms of melancholia or depression, as if it's worthy of great sympathy and profound relief efforts, when a mere change of scenery (or attitude) can save the day. But often it's the word we use when we have unrewarding work to do.  It's a trapped feeling that we escape with any little thing we can - cat videos or video games - anything to avoid beginning.  And that's easily solved if we can just get on with it.  And sometimes the task is so repetitive, it takes all we have to get to the end of it - like marking 60 almost identical essays or tests.  We muscle through it to the end, sometimes rewarding ourselves with treats after every five papers to keep us alert and focused.


Our education system is shifting towards finding student's passions, allowing them to study whatever gives them pleasure, and entertaining them in the classroom.   If students complain they're uninspired by our lectures, that reveals a problem of students accepting some responsibility for their work habits, but, perhaps more dangerously, it reveals a larger problem - that we're no longer training children in the essential art of coping with boredom.  The general consensus seems to be that boredom is a situational problem to avoid, rather than a human condition to tolerate, and I have grave concerns about the implications of this pedagogy.

I was thinking about this as I was painting eggs with my kids today.  Back in the day, I had an art prof who made us do a horrid acrylics exercise of painting several versions of a white blob on a black background with the catch being that the blob must be within an inch of each edge, but, at each edge, it must be a different distance than from any other edge.  It forced us to paint white on black, then switch to using black to cut back the white here and there, and white again to push it out until we had achieved the requirements.  At the time I thought it was a bloody waste of time.  But whenever I paint something picky - like Easter eggs - I realize how useful it was.  It helped me cope with mistakes as I expected to go back and use the background colour, but more to the point, it really helped me learn to endure how tedious it can be to paint intricately.  Sometimes we find work boring when we don't understand the usefulness of it - but sometimes that usefulness doesn't become clear for years.

Marcus Aurelius suggested, when "things from outside break in to distract you,"
"Give yourself a time of quiet to learn some new good thing and cease to wander out of your curse.  But, when you have done that, be on your guard against a second kind of wandering.  For those who are sick to death in life, with no mark on which they direct every impulse or in general every imagination, are triflers, not in words only but also in their deeds."  (Meditations 2.7)
We don't much mind if people are triflers any more.  Fickleness is certainly not the insult it once was.  People are just finding themselves - sometimes into their later years.  We don't want to force them to focus on a path until they get somewhere before changing course and venturing out on something new.  This slalom trajectory is more acceptable, I believe, to our detriment.   How much depression is just simple boredom that could be overcome if we addressed it as such?  To be sure often it's not, but if there are some cases that could have been avoided with training, then we've done our charges a disservice by ignoring this plight.

Some people struggle with boredom more than others.  There's a a biological basis some of the time - a lack of dopamine, but it's not entirely the case.  Clever people can get around boredom by finding new choices other wouldn't think of.  And forceful people get around it by ignoring the limitations and continuing to do what they enjoy.  The former can get high marks under the new education system by, for instance, performing a play instead of writing an essay, but the latter, if they continue to play video games instead of doing homework, will have to repeat the course next year.  

Part of the trouble is a belief that people who are easily bored are somehow more intelligent.  The easily amused must be void of thought.  But I question that initial premise.  I used to work at an insurance company where many jobs were tedious, but none more so than checking the accuracy of the yearly tax run against the individual files.  I found it impossible to do this task, and implored my boss to assign it to someone who couldn't do the other jobs assigned to me.  He assented, but, after watching a temp girl do the job efficiently and accurately, my arrogance gave way to embarrassment that I wasn't up to the task at hand.  I ended up looking like a petulant child instead of presenting the cool intellectual image I had endeavoured to master as if I were above such trivial tasks.  

Beyond the troubles it might cause students in their work and life, it causes problems in the classroom.  Earlier this year, I couldn't play a three-minute song related to a book because it was too boring.  We got through barely a verse before the complaints poured in and the whining drowned out the lyrics.  I've become used to catering to the needs of the group rather than challenging them to feel the pain of enduring something that isn't immediately entertaining.  Nobody wants to be boring, but perhaps we should view it in a different light and praise teachers willing to bore their students in order to teach patience, respect, and endurance.  Now I preface media with the length and implore them to sit politely for the duration.

Some students can't learn because they're obsessed with being entertained, so their education is compromised by their impatience.  Current pedagogy suggests I be even more varied to match the high speed change of view of video games, to match a moment by moment attention span, but I'm a rebellious sort and am starting to feed my own desire to slow them down, to have entire conversations without interruptions by bells and whistles.

Serious boredom can lead to serious mental health problems.  Dogs left alone all day can destroy a house, apes can refuse to eat, prisoners in isolation become suicidal.  All animals need a variety of mental stimulants.  My daughter changes toys in her bird cage every week because even birds lose it if they get bored.  Some kids see school as a cage with too little stimulation because we've lost the ability to judge what counts as serious and what needs to be tolerated to the point that we think nobody should be bored ever.  This is a pivotal problem because most jobs have some component that's tedious yet necessary.  

The big question is, how much do we accommodate student needs and desires before it's detrimental to their future?

Boredom is useful to motivate us to do something rather than nothing - to practice skills we might need later in life.  My cat doesn't need to hunt, but he often attacks unsuspecting elastics, which keeps him sharp if he even needed to kill his dinner.  But now that we have so many thing that stimulate us but that are actually antithetical to develop skills that can be used later in life or work, we need to struggle to endure tedium instead of following primitive instincts to escape it.  

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