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    painting of blurry grass

    Blessed Boredom

    Joy Clarkson

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    • Jessica V.

      Wow, this was amazing. Thank you for these thoughts!

    • Nick Skiles

      Joy, Thanks for this. I think I was a very similar teenager. I dumped my smart phone recently, but three kids come with their own "pinging" and I certainly spend too much time reading online. Its nice that there are occasionally things in digital reality worth reading though. Our desert parents are a treasure.

    • Kathryn

      I am deeply inspired by this article. I was frequently bored during my very simple childhood (up to age 13) living in a fairly isolated rural location, but my siblings & I created our own concerts & elaborate cubbies, explored & absorbed the love of nature, consumed books voraciously, appreciated poetry & music, delighted in hospitality & learned the art of inter-generational conversation. “Boredom” for me too was a tremendous invitation. Xx

    The summer of my fifteenth year was exceptionally hot, and I was exceptionally moody. In June I had gone to a summer camp, filled with unbounded expectations that my time there would offer all the freedom and companionship my bourgeoning soul craved. I was, alas, to be disappointed. My best friend and I had a falling out, drama abounded, and the cafeteria food was remarkably bad. I returned home with all the unearned pessimism of a forty-five year old beatnik who truly had seen it all.

    The result of this was a disgruntled boredom. Thanks to the falling out, I was somewhat alienated from my former friend group, which disturbed what few summer plans I had. To add insult to injury, I couldn’t drive, and nothing was in walking distance from our home except the neighborhood swimming pool which had been blown to bits by lightning while I was away.

    Among my friends, only she-who-must-not-be-named could drive and my older siblings were away. There was, it seemed, nothing to do but lick my wounds and marinate in my discontent.

    July and August loomed ominous, blank, and very, very hot. I should mention: our home had no AC. So on one unbearable day, I escaped the sauna of my top floor room and retreated to my brother’s basement lair. The room smelled slightly of Old Spice and mildew, but it was dark and cool. And I soon discovered other allurements: piles of books, CDs, and magazines, and a dusty guitar in the corner.

    With nothing else to do, I set up camp. I hung a string of fairy lights, pointed the portable fan directly at my face, and began to make my way through the dusty piles of books and CDs. I listened to hours upon hours of music that summer. Sufjan Stevens, Imogen Heap, and Death Cab for Cutie became the sound track of my life. I scribbled down terrible poems in my journal. I taught myself to play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Joel’s slightly out-of-tune guitar. I even began to get callouses. And something else happened: I began to pray.

    In one sense, this was nothing new. I’d grown up in a Christian home, and the faith of my parents was vibrant and loving. But in that musty hermit’s cave of a room, as I lay on my back and listened to Sufjan Stevens gently trill “All the glory that the Lord has made / and the complications I could do without…” a new thing was born in me. Haltingly and in whispers, I began to tell God about all the anger and hurt hiding beneath the surface of my composure. I began to pray about all that made me afraid and full of awe. I confessed my secret hopes and fears. I thanked God, most of all, for music.

    In the quiet emptiness of that stale room, I began to perceive a freshness and a fullness. I sat for long, empty hours that bourgeoned with quiet, abundant meaning. These were the stumblings of a young soul onto the threshold of mystery. To the casual observer, not much happened that summer. A freckled fifteen-year-old wiled away the summer by playing the guitar badly. But as an adult, I know my time in that summer lair was pivotal. That summer I discovered my interior world, and it has been precious to me ever since.


    This winter has been a particularly severe one. As I write this, I am confined to my house for the fifth time in two weeks, due to the deep drifts of snow, diving temperatures, and what the weathermen rather apocalyptically call a “polar vortex.” I am perched in my childhood room, the one from which I sought escape that hot summer so many years ago. A candle is flickering on my window ledge, and large clumps of snow pelt the roof outside. Perhaps, I think to myself, this is one of those blessedly boring days.

    I fidget. I consciously reject the urge to check my phone. I close my eyes. I feel the warmth from my mug of tea radiate into my fingers. I listen to the muffled crackling of my candle, and the Celtic tune singing out of my computer’s speakers. For a moment, it seems an enchantment has fallen over me, a deep quiet spreading itself over my soul like the snow on the hill outside. Into the emptiness, an abundant, lively calm flickers into life. I cherish it for a moment.

    And then my phone buzzes. As I peek to see who it is (my doctoral advisor), a flood of notifications ping aggressively, the whole world seeming to tumble into my room through the tiny screen of my phone. The spell is broken. Slipping away into my internal world is not as easy as it used to be. There used to be a quiet waiting for me, a deep consistent calm that I could retreat into with the least moment of opportunity. Now it evades me, or, is crowded out by the cacophonous demands of life and work and the perpetual pinging of my phone.

    Some of this change is only natural, part and parcel with the transition to adulthood. I am responsible now, for myself and others. I have more work to do, and it is good work, and I am thankful for all this. But amidst this fruitful season, a worry hums in the back of my mind. Even in my few, empty hours, I cannot seem to defend my quiet moments from the onslaught of the constant pinging of my phone. When I was fifteen, I had to seek connection, noise, and information. Now, constant connection is the norm. I have to seek quiet, stillness, and emptiness.

    Perhaps this is why even though studies show that we have more free time than previous generations, we report feeling like we have very little truly free time. I think this perception is true. Though we may log fewer hours of work, the noise of the world, the demands of work, and the entreaties of social life follow us wherever we go, through the persistent buzzing of our phones. It’s not that we don’t have free time, it’s simply that that time is filled with the empty noise of constant connection and information. We are never alone. We are never bored. Paradoxically, we often feel lonely and empty. I usually like to blame this listlessness on social media, but recently I discovered that this distraction is not unique to our present epoch.

    In the fourth century, a flock of Christians fled from the hustle and bustle of city life in the Roman Empire to seek silence in the desert. Perhaps they, like us, were worried about a world so flattened by the meaningless chatter of life, perhaps they too sought after blessed boredom. We now know them as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They lived restrictive, simple lives, and sought to hear God and rid themselves of all earthly desires. It seems that all their circumstances were aligned for that kind of full silence I experienced my fifteenth summer. Nonetheless, like me, they struggled for a fruitful silence. Amma Syncletica, a Desert Mother, described the difficulty this way:

    There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town; they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd; and it is possible for those who are solitaries to live in the crowd of their own thoughts.footnote

    Even the solitary monks were visited by distraction. They called it acedia, a kind of listless boredom, the hum of unproductive silence that led to distraction, anger, and sleep. Sometimes they called it the Noonday Devil, because after lunch, the monks and nuns found themselves easy prey to dissipation. A creeping ambivalence can sneak in when one’s belly and mind are full. And when not battled, the whole afternoon intended for prayer could be stolen away by that dastardly devil.

    It comforted me to read of the Desert Fathers’ and Mothers’ struggle with acedia, because they made me see that we are not the first generation to fight this battle. The desert parents longed to know God and to cultivate that sacred silence and blessed boredom, and so do I. But befriending that silence was a struggle for them, just as it is for me. It made me realize that while smart phones and social media may impede our interior world, it is no real excuse. Impediments toward peace and quiet have always existed. Our shapeshifting opponent may have changed its guise from sleepiness to social media, but it is still there, doing all it can to rob our empty hours of their fullness.

    We cannot give up the battle for holy silence and for blessed boredom simply because we live in a world with smart phones. To pursue silence, boredom, even loneliness, is a radical choice in our world, but it was a radical choice in theirs as well. We must choose to turn away from the constant entertainment that vies for our attention. We must allow ourselves to be lonely. Silence has always been a battle. Prayer has never been easy.

    And if, like the desert mothers and fathers, we desire to taste of the blessed boredom, the full emptiness, and the communicative silence, we too must flee to the desert, sometimes. We must find our hermitage in the modern world, even if it is a musty basement bedroom during a miserably hot summer.

    Girl with Flowers by Federico Zandomeneghi
    Federico Zandomeneghi, Girl with Flowers, 1894

    Footnotes

    1. Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987) and The Desert Fathers, translated by Helen Waddell (New York: Vintage, 1998; Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1957).
    Contributed By Joy Clarkson Joy Clarkson

    Joy Clarkson is a doctoral candidate at the University of St Andrews. She also blogs at joyclarkson.com, and recently co-authored Girls’ Club: Cultivating Lasting Friendship in a Lonely World together with her mother and sister.

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