On Boredom

by Michael Carson


I do not think I’ve ever seen my son bored before.

I mean really bored.

He stares emptily at the blue leather before him, and I am worried, a little frantic even. I rummage through the pocket in front of me for a magazine. I should have brought along a book. I should have thought of taking the Ipad out of the bag before I stowed it. I should have reviewed the current rules on using phones. It will only be for a few more seconds, only until the Captain turns the seatbelt light off, but, right now, I am overwhelmed by the idea that I have failed him in some way, seeing him stare dejectedly like this into space.

More than anything, I’m horrified by his glazed eyes. They haunt me as I write. I see myself in them. I see a slipping away. An indifference to the world. It makes me think how fragile our concentration actually is, how it might be crushed, snapped, and we would just float off into eternity, as if we had never bothered entertaining ourselves at all, and there were no thought or person in this world worth entertaining.

At one point in my life, I might have gotten up on a high horse and tried to point out how this shows something wrong about our culture. I might join the hounds that entertain themselves by baying over these over-entertained children. I would say that his is killing our children’s minds. I would argue that no culture that expects to be entertained all the time can produce anything of worth. I would bring up ADHD. I would point toward our failing schools.

But this would conveniently forget how much I detest boredom as well. It would gloss over the fact that I will bring a book with me on daily errands, that I check my phone email twenty times an hour, and that I run around my block once a day to avoid being bored.

I am just as terrified of boredom as my son.

I blame this insight – such as it is – on my time in the military.

I’ve never really been bored, bored to the point of tears, bored to the point of snapping, until my time in the infantry.

If I can say the military did anything for me, it forced me to confront my fear of boredom, though it in no way diminished it.

Before the military, death was nothing compared to boredom. I would rather die than be bored.

Boredom was perhaps part of the reason I got into the military. A lingering fear that if I didn’t do something dramatic life itself might become boring.

Of course, I had never really been bored, not really, that would only come later. Apart from occasional intervals at school and church, my childhood brought with it a whole host of distractions.

You hear a lot about how the military pushes you. How you’re always busy learning new stuff about guns and weapons and making new friends and running a lot. This is true. I made some friends, and I certainly ran a lot.

There is also another, equally exciting, idea of the military out there. In this version it is all guns and explosions, shoot-outs and near death experiences. And, if you’re lucky enough to go to war, this too, is, in some respects, true.

But both, while partially true, and in evidence occasionally, fail to account for the intervals between these events. They fail to account for the fact that these events are themselves rather dreary when they do appear. To talk to anyone for over an hour, much less months on end, about patrol tactics and field etiquette, requires a heroic fortitude and courageous stoicism seldom highlighted by military recruiters. To get in conversations about whatever city your interlocutor happens to be from, and to maintain this conversation over the course of twelve-hour overwatch missions, tends to become a tad repetitive.

There is nothing more boring to me than scraping up yet another dead body. There is nothing as monotonous as the dull fear, the inkling that you could die, not in some spectacular way, in some manner deserving of retelling, or even imagining, but for a stupid reason, because someone misfires a rifle or your vehicle rolls over the wrong pothole, and others will inevitably find your death boring, scraping up pieces of you to fill up their bags.

I suppose this really a problem of novelty. Sure, the first time you hear bullets above your head it is exciting, but the second and third time? It just becomes a matter of course. It just becomes yet another way to die. And you yourself become a little bit more boring for having participated in it so often.

So when I look back on my military experiences I can’t help but think of this boredom.

I can’t help thinking of them as boring.

Of course, as I grow older, the moments that were in truth abysmally boring might in comparison to present boredoms, like, say the four-hour flight I’m now on, seem exciting and fresh, winsome even.

I try to be faithful to the memory of boredom but a man can only do so much. New boredoms continually pester whatever it is in people that survives being bored.

The lady to my left is playing some sort of game on her Ipad. She touches the screen and tries to get the colorful pill looking object around the other colorful pill looking object. The next time I look over she is moving animal parts around to complete an animal puzzle. Every time I look over it’s a different game. Now it’s playing cards. I suppose this is the advantage of the Ipad. In my day you had to choose one distraction and stick with it.

The girl to my right cannot sleep. She tries different positions. She shakes her head, sighs heavily and curls up on the window. Finally, she gives up. She pulls out headphones and begins listening to a song she has heard a thousand times before (that, to be honest, if she was being honest, has become a bit boring).

I myself type these thoughts. I order a drink. By God. I won’t be bored.

I have been bored and it’s not pretty.

My son is watching a three hour-long movie he has seen before, so I feel better about his situation. I don’t think he is bored anymore, at least not as bored.

Most everyone in the plane is nodding off, or hoping to nod off, because they find the experience of flying forty-thousand feet above the earth boring.

You could blame the companies for packing us like this or the people for agreeing to it.

It’s really a matter of perspective – your enthusiasm for criticism, self-criticism or some combination of the two.

Right now, the stewardess is passing out peanuts, which my son, the chubby lady to my left, the teenager to my right, and I all open simultaneously, shoving them into our mouths with impatience, momentarily interested in the sparkle of salt on our tongues.

We are good souls, we are.

Never quite bored because we are in fact quite boring.