Opinions, Column

The Lost Art of Boredom

A few minutes late, my teacher rushed into class and started with a conspiratorial whisper, “So! Who wants tonight’s homework to be sitting down and doing nothing?”

Instantly riveted, we all leaned in.

She laughed, then continued, “I’d like you all to find somewhere quiet, sit with a notebook, and write down everything you notice. How the place looks, smells, sounds, and every little detail you can think of. No distractions. I want you to just sit with boredom. Class dismissed.”

Taken aback, my freshman fall English class immediately came alive as several theories circulated about why the professor had assigned such a strange task. I didn’t join in the guessing game—to me, the task was crystal clear.

I’ve always been well acquainted with boredom. When I was younger, my boredom fueled my imagination as I turned my uncle’s feather duster into a ballerina or rooted for raindrops racing across the windshield. But as I grew older, boredom became something much more meaningful: a tool for me to find a sense of home.

I was born in California, grew up in Florida, finagled my way into boarding school, wound up in Prague, started college in Pennsylvania, and am now at Boston College. I’ve never stayed in the same place for more than four years. As you might imagine, this has led to a recurring identity crisis about where home truly is for me. My standing answer? I’ve found that moments of utter and profound boredom make me feel more at home than anything else.

Imagine this. You’re surrounded by strangers but seated alone in the breathtakingly beautiful Smetana Hall, the largest orchestra chamber in Prague. A mix of Czech, Slovak, and German swirls around you, but not a word of your native English tongue. With an hour until the curtains open, you have nothing to accompany you but your own thoughts.

So you decide to take in every last detail of this place. You study ceilings so beautifully painted they instantly draw the eyes of passersby, sweeping archways playing tug-of-war over the stage, and balcony boxes frosted with intricately carved metal vines. As time passes, you notice the smaller details—the ridges in the banisters beside you, the slight blue hue in the white tile floor, and the 6-year-old already squirming in their seat two rows ahead.

Such were the observations I found myself making as I sat in Smetana Hall this past summer, waiting to hear the first vibrato of Berlin University’s choir and orchestra. All at once, this place that had first felt completely foreign to me now seemed even more familiar and intimate than the apartment I’d been staying in for the past month. I realized I had taken the time to truly, genuinely see it. In fact, I felt so at home there that I was the first on my feet to give the choir a standing ovation, and I stayed standing even when no one else joined me.

My apartment felt familiar by default—simply and only because I lived there. Yet this hall, which I’d only sat in for an hour, felt familiar because I had intentionally acquainted myself with it. 

You see, boredom forces you to truly take stock of the physical place you’re in. Boredom is not like meditation, which elicits deep, profound thoughts. Instead, boredom invites you to simply be where you are.

In fact, I’ve found that if you’re bored for long enough, you’ll end up going a step further. You’ll start imagining how and why the building was constructed, what kinds of people have traipsed through its halls, and what joys and sorrows have taken place there. Soon, you’ll feel a deep connection to this place, just as I did to Smetana Hall.

While one could argue this connection is merely fabricated, I would counter that it doesn’t matter whether your imagined world is real at all. What matters is that in these moments of reflection, boredom empowers you to decide that every place you occupy can be your home.

So here’s my Aesop’s Fables mic-drop moment. Never lose yourself in easy distractions, whether it’s another person, a job, at the bottom of a bottle, or in an Instagram feed. Find fun in traditionally unexciting moments wherever you can. When you’re at dinner with a friend and they get up to go get water, don’t instantly start filling the gap by texting someone else. Instead, try freaking your friend out by staring them down the whole way there and back. When you’re sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, make faces out of outlets or imagine what the popcorn ceiling might taste like. It’s a fruitless endeavor, but then again, the best things are. If you intentionally acquaint yourself with your surroundings, you’ll automatically feel at home everywhere you go. So, rediscover and reclaim the lost art of boredom.

October 1, 2023