You Have the Right to Remain Bored- Wisdom from de Saint-Exupéry

I had an argument one morning this week with my twelve year old about the use of his Kindle.  He wanted to be sure he had it with him so he wouldn’t have to “sit and do nothing”.  Putting aside our likely disagreements about handheld gaming necessitating an improvement on “nothing,” I said, “Do you know it’s good to do nothing sometimes?” “Did you know that being bored is a good thing?”

I sensed my red corpuscles beginning to vie for passage in my constricting vessels as he sagely replied, “I don’t think that’s true,” and left the house.

Do you think it’s true, dear readers? Is boredom good? Or at least functional?

Judging from our boundless efforts to avoid it, it would seem that most of us ascribe little or no value to boredom.  Are we, perhaps, afraid of it?  Is it a gateway to more painful feelings like loneliness or dread?  Does it remind us of “unfinished business” in our practical or emotional lives?  To me, it presents as an invitation, or opening door.  I could slam the door shut by picking up my phone and seeing what Uncle Gary’s cats are up to today, or I could poke my head in the door and see what terrain boredom is actually coaxing me to cross. 

“Give feelings a name and a kindly hello,

And after a time they’ll be ready to go.”

-from my book once called How Sophia Found Her Way

When we gently acknowledge our boredom and other feelings we view as negative, instead of popping a cork in them, not only do we often find they have something to teach us, but paradoxically, we find that accepting them often shortens their stay. 

“Hello boredom, I see you there. Come and sit with me.  What’s happening around me right now? Is there an important action I need to be taking? Where is my attention best placed?  Is there something I can learn? Someone I can help? Something beautiful right in my line of vision?”

Our minds need time to wander before they can catch hold of something life-changing, just as the builder needs to walk the grounds before putting in the foundation.

How’s this for an opportunity for contemplation? Living three years in the Sahara desert without smartphone, tablet or computer.  Such was the experience of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of the immortal The Little Prince.

According to this gem of an article I stumbled upon, he was so bored, or as he puts it “bath[ing] in the conditions of sheer boredom,” that he began to catalog the different types of silences:

There is silence of the noon, when the sun suspends all thought and movement. There is a false silence when the north wind has dropped, and the appearance of insects, drawn away like pollen from their inner oasis, announces the eastern storm, carrier of sand. There is silence of intrigue, when one knows that a distant tribe is brooding. There is a silence of mystery, when the Arabs join up in their intricate cabals. There is a tense silence when the messenger is slow to return. A sharp silence when, at night, you hold your breath to listen. A melancholic silence when you remember those you love.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in Letter to a Hostage 

Graced with this space for observation, he also gave us some of the most beautifully profound messages about being ok with where you are:

People where you live," the little prince said, "grow five thousand roses in one garden... yet they don't find what they're looking for...

“They don't find it," I answered.

“And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose, or a little water..."

“Of course," I answered.

And the little prince added, "But eyes are blind. You have to look with the heart.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince

Could it also be said that people today peek into five thousand other lives on social media, when what they’re looking for could be right under their own roof?

“Same old slippers, same old rice, same old glimpse of paradise.” -William James Lampton

To me, boredom is an integral fiber in the fabric of a life well lived.  It’s the turnstile we pass through on our own transit to our life’s mission. What would the Moonlight Sonata be without the notes that pause and linger for a time?  And if I’m making a masterpiece of my life I better darn well have beige on my palette!

I once read of an eminent astrophysicist.  And to what did he attribute his achievements? Early learning software? Episodes of Blue’s Clues in which Steve sang the names of the planets in the solar system? Even, perhaps an inspiring math or science teacher? No.  What he had to thank for his brilliance was boredom. Mind-numbing boredom.  Growing up in the ashy rubble of post World War II Germany, and finding nothing in the world to entertain him, he struck up an acquaintance with the stars.

I humbly suggest that we do not deny our children, or ourselves, the right to remain bored.

ANtoine de Saint-Exupéry

ANtoine de Saint-Exupéry

Illustration from The Little Prince

Illustration from The Little Prince