Surprised by Boredom

No one is afraid of the dark. No one is afraid of silence. What we fear when the lights are out or the room is quiet is that there is an unknown threat. At least when the lights are on and the noise is deafening, we are aware of our surroundings and know the threats. Don’t believe me? Consider the last text message you sent. Were you comforted or disturbed by how long it took to get a response? How old were you when shadows stopped being monsters?

The truth of the matter is that I am afraid of boredom. I am afraid of Sabbath, I am afraid of rest. But I am not really afraid of being bored, or of being at rest. I am afraid of irrelevance. I am afraid that the silence means that I lack value. If my phone is not blowing up with retweets and texts and comments, if my calendar is not full of social engagements, if my workday is not slammed with meetings, appointments and projects, then I am losing relevance and purpose. And thus, I am losing value. My phone is never off, nor is it off my person, and I have gotten to the point where I can’t even watch TV anymore because I get bored at the commercials and reach for the next Facebook update or round of Words with Friends. And I am not alone. I am almost 30, and much of my generation (virtually all of the younger generations) deals with the same problem.

I think the problem isn’t so much an attention deficit, at least not at the core. I think the problem is an identity deficit. The problem isn’t that I find it hard to give someone my full attention with my phone vibrating on my hip, it’s that I find it hard to want to give my full attention. After all, that notification could be an invitation to the next thing or a question from a friend- proof of value.

So today I left my devices behind and took a half hour walk in a nearby neighborhood. I did nothing but pay attention. I saw the Michigan fall colors, felt the crisp air, and talked to God about some of my stuff… I should say “thought really hard with God about some of my stuff,” as I didn’t want to be offputting to my neighbors. And then I listened and kept walking. I had no great revelations, no audible voice, just the very real impression that “we should do that again some time.” The world did not fall apart. In fact, I did not miss a single e-mail, Facebook message, tweet, text or phone call during that time. Despite not having my phone’s clock on me, I was not late for my next appointment. I simply had thirty minutes of attentiveness. And peace. I had lots of peace, even when wrestling with God a little. Thirty minutes may not seem like much, but it meant a lot to me.

I wonder about the life-giving power of paying attention. I wonder how different my sense of mission would be if I spent more time paying attention to the people around me than the notifications on my phone. I wonder if I would stop trying to prove myself and instead would just be myself if I paid more attention. I wonder if I would stop trying to get God figured out and simply enjoy God more if I paid more attention. Part of Reformed spirituality is the notion that we do not act on our own, but that we participate in what Christ is already doing, and I wonder how paying attention might impact my participation with God. What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Surprised by Boredom

  1. Excellent observations! I’m a tad older than you, but I also find myself checking my phone every time it makes a noise; to see who’s doing what on Facebook, or playing my next 83-point word (well, OK. 8-point word) on Words with Friends. Yet, I get really irritated with my kids who can’t have a conversation with me without watching TV or playing a video game at the same time. We are a distracted people.

    Since I operate a Retreat Center, I find that it takes people a few hours to become comfortable with the lack of distractions when they come on a retreat. For some, just the act of turning off their phone is painful. But you rightly pointed out, being in constant contact with the vast outer reaches of the world does not give us value, or an identity! We have value, all on our own! We have identity because we are created in the image of God! We have forgotten that.

    I applaud your 30-minute attentive walk with God. Make it a daily habit! It’s amazing what you might be missing by not paying attention to the Holy Spirit.

  2. You are so right about the need to pay attention to our quiet times, our Sabbaths. We Reformed folks run the danger of falling into the Calvinist trap that says we should keep working hard and not paying attention to ourselves, but we forget, then, the bigger Calvinian truth that God is sovereign, not us, and that sovereign God tells us to rest and step apart, and that we need to trust God to run and save the world without us, at least sometimes.

    Of course, like Paul, I recognize this sin because I am the greatest of all sinners. But I am working on it.

  3. Andy, your observation that our distractability is not about attention deficit so much as it is about identity is incredibly astute. I think you hit the nail on the head. I think back to a texting exchange I had earlier this week, where I was waiting on pins and needles for a reply: “Is everything okay? What’s going on? Why won’t she talk to me? Does she still like me?” Okay, it wasn’t quite that teenagery, but it was close. It wasn’t about needing something to do, it was about ME. And you know what? If she hadn’t replied, the world would’ve kept turning, I would have gone on with my day, and everything would have been fine, eventually resolved. Sheesh. My neuroticism. Neither I nor that text is the center of the universe.

    And then the end of your post: I want to see what God is already doing so that I can join in, and although I pray it as a sincere wish of my heart, at the same time, I am afraid to look around, because I am afraid of what God might ask of me, what he might do. This, despite the fact that I know that everything God invites me into ends up being amazing. How to get over the fear?

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