I was thinking this week about boredom, first in a religious context. When I was a kid, church was pretty boring — although, as “good kid,” I was kept in line by a combination of my hypertrophied superego and an intense interest in doodling.

As an adolescent, I started to really take an interest in church — the sermons, the music, the ins and outs of Mormon theology and the multiple holy books. Becoming a missionary gave me a whole new point of view, more practical and more involved. As I then moved out of the church, there was one last opportunity to become intensely involved in the whole thing — should I stay or should I go?

I admit, though, that one of the things that helped me leave was how boring the whole enterprise was becoming to me. This is all just my own experience, of course, but I found that after 20-odd years of going to three hours of church meetings every week, I’d heard pretty much everything I was likely to hear from the pulpit or in the classroom. I believe it was the Mormon writer Levi Peterson who said he only went to church every six months or so, just to make sure nothing had changed. That’s exactly how I feel, except it’s a lot more than six months between visits. (And yes, I’ve read Acts 17:21.)

Last night at the gym, I engaged in one of the most boring activities that’s currently part of my life — doing cardio on the elliptical machine. I find this nearly intolerably boring, even when I distract myself with reading material or podcasts. This time, though, I was able to tune to CNBC and see, rather than angry Republicans screaming at each other, the end of a tightly fought match of curling.

Curling is the punch line to a lot of Winter Olympics jokes, but it’s really one of the most interesting sports in the games. It’s quite strategic but still requires finely tuned physical skills. And unlike many Olympic sports, curling competition unfolds at a pace that’s easy for spectators to follow. You don’t need a super-slow-mo replay to be absolutely riveted.

The match or game or whatever you call it that I watched at the gym was great. United States vs. Switzerland — it went into extra innings, or an “extra end,” I think they called it. Switzerland took advantage of a couple of subtle American mistakes to win the deciding point, and the whole thing kept me on the elliptical for ten minutes longer than my usual workout.

I can’t maintain the long-term interest in sports, but I get the appeal of a fine competition. When people face off against each other, there’s always the possibility of something new; maybe religion is boring because it’s a bunch of people on one side talking about a supposed Eternity on the other.

11 responses to “Boredom?”

  1. Rachel says:

    Hey Dave, did you see this recent meditation on boredom in the NYT Book Review?

    The author mentions David Foster Wallace’s experiments with boredom as a sort of path to mental clarity and enlightenment. How do your meditation retreats fit into your experience of boredom?

  2. Dave says:

    I hadn’t seen that article, although I’d read the excerpt from DFW’s unfinished novel. His descriptions of boredom resonate very closely with the experience of meditation, which can be an excruciatingly boring activity, probably the most boring thing I’ve ever done by a factor of a thousand.

    It’s funny to think about why I put up with the boredom of meditation but not the boredom of church or the elliptical machine. I guess the boredom of meditation is directly in service to a goal, while the boredom of church or the elliptical isn’t. So I’m always looking for something to distract myself with while I’m at the gym.

    Getting absorbed in sports is a different thing, kind of the opposite of boredom: your mind is running all kinds of narratives about possibilities, questions are being asked and answered, and it’s all focused on this external event that’s going on before your eyes.

  3. lane says:

    just when i think i’m over tgw . . .

    it sucks me in, sorry to everyone that’s not a recovering mormon.

    i’ll B back! . . .

  4. J-Man says:

    So is part of your boredom when at the gym or at church hearing the “endless mind yatter” (Ginsburg – or is it Kerouac?) that normally runs through one’s head when there are no other distractions? Does meditation quell that noise? To me, boredom is often the lack of quiet rather than the quiet itself.

  5. Nat says:

    “…maybe religion is boring because it’s a bunch of people on one side talking about a supposed Eternity on the other.”
    What a great thought! Although, when it comes to a slightest denomination difference, or much worse, another religion, the arguments can get pretty crazy.

    As to working out, I agree, the elliptical must be crowned the most boring thing in the world. I made myself use it for a very long time, mostly because I never wanted to admit to myself that a grown adult is allowed to get bored. Then I finally faced the fact that I’m either a not grown adult, or I simply like different sports (I like the second one better). Now I just do something different every day. If you work out 5-6 times a week, you can do pilates, yoga, hot yoga, roller skates, racquet ball, snowboarding, dancing, and a whole bunch of other stuff, so that every activity maximum repeats itself once a week or less. It seems to work, it’s really fun, and I think, it’s better for the body to use different muscle groups anyway. Also, you bike to work every day, right? It’s a very good cardio work out; you probably don’t need the elliptical.

  6. Stella says:

    I’m totally allergic to boredom and it’s so different from meditation which is intentional and I feel like I have to focus on emptying my mind.

    My hatred of boredom i think stems from attending a Catholic school with religious assembly every morning. I’m equally allergic to religion.

    I think one of the greatest things about being grown-up is that you have some measure of control over being bored or not. I still appreciate that.

  7. jeremy says:

    I don’t find religion boring in the least. I don’t know what y’all are talking about… (Of course, I also find unicorns and leprechauns endlessly fascinating, so consider the source.)

    For the record, working out isn’t boring if you’re watching episodes of Gossip Girl on mute (with subtitles) while listening to the latest Record Club CD and eating a rocky road ice cream cone.

  8. J-Man says:

    Well, fugawdsakes ya gotta keep your blood sugar up – you wouldn’t want to collapse on the treadmill and miss the end of the episode.

  9. Greg F says:

    I guess I’m grateful for the boringness of reform Judaism. Helped drive me to godlessness faster, right? We didn’t even go that often but I have a vivid recall of the dull spiritual ache of knowing three hours of Yom Kippur services lay ahead and there was nothing I could do to make it go by faster. Theology never piqued my interest and Hebrew somehow fell outside my linguistic geekery–in the context of learning enough to uncomprehendingly read prayers, it seemed almost like a synthetic language. There was nothing to keep me there, and I’m glad of it.

    I like boredom sometimes these days. Beats the hell out of some other stuff in life. I hope this doesn’t make me one of those people who says “oh I’m never bored!” I never got them.

  10. Nat says:

    I’d probably get confused from all the multitasking, drop the scoop out my cone, slip, and get shot by my treadmill against the row of the elliptical people, generating some sort of a dominoes effect. Then I’d be deeply apologetic and explain that I saw a leprechaun, who offered me a pot of gold.

  11. ian says:

    I feel rather conflicted about boredom as a whole. in the grander scale of things, boredom can be both good and bad. On the one hand, it indicates that you’re not faced with any large problems (none immediate, in any case) but on the other hand, it’s quite boring, isn’t it? We all need some sort of controversy or challenge to lend us meaning.

    And of course on the smaller scale boredom is simply a bad thing. I speak as a lifeguard who for 4 hours at a time does nothing but watch other people swim and think of how better I could be using my time. Though I do get paid quite well for someone who does so little.