The Virtues of Boredom

Growing up, I was always reading. Not just books snuck under my desk when we were supposed to be doing useless things like math, but umbrella warning labels on the sidewalk, or the active ingredients list on toothpaste tubes. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had a weird compulsion to read every word I came across, although I might be one of the few people to successfully walk the streets of downtown Manhattan with a book in front of my face.

In retrospect, everyone around me was almost definitely planning to shiv me. Those wacky New Yorkers!

Go back to CA, hippie!

The cool thing about reading is, no matter how much you perfect your walking-and-reading game, there comes a time when you’ve just got to go about your life, and you can’t possibly have a book in front of your face. Doing dishes. Making the bed. Riding roller coasters. You know, the usual. So despite my obsession, my brain actually had to entertain itself a whole lot, which is when I told myself stories.

Actually, I should clarify. That’s when I narrated everything in my life as if it were a story, making up all sorts of things when real life was too boring. My favorite was a third-person perspective of myself, a secret spy in training, trying to blend in as a normal member of society, when in fact I was highly trained in the arts of espionage and assassination. You can make a walk to the corner store so much more exciting that way!

Am I going to pick up a gallon of milk, or make a drop for the contact I’ve been cultivating in the embassy? NO ONE KNOWS!

Then, when I was 22, I got my heart broken. Not like, “Oh, a boy broke up with me, I need ice cream,” but, “My chest actually physically hurts, and I suddenly understand why they call it a broken heart.” It was rough, and happened to coincide with the end of college, and trying to adjust to real life, find a job, and become an adult.

It was a shitty time. I cried a lot.

It was a lot like this, only I’m not nearly as cute as this puppy.

That was when I discovered audio books. Falling asleep took me hours, because my mind kept re-running all the most painful things it could come up with, over and over again, because the human brain apparently evolved to be an asshole. But if I listened to audio books (my favorites are still the Harry Potter series, because the narrator’s voice is magic) then I could distract myself enough to get to sleep. The goal was to not think.

Here’s the problem though: over the years, not thinking became a really appealing proposition. I had some serious struggles with mental illness, and my fair share of all the regular ups and downs that come with being in your 20s, and being able to avoid my own brain was really appealing. So I gradually started listening to audio books every night before going to bed. Then on the train on the way to and from work. Then just to fill up all the spare silence in the apartment.

Sometime around having a baby, I discovered podcasts, and a whole new world of obsession opened up for me. Here was a limitless supply of stories on any range of topics I could think of, just waiting for me to download! Do you know what’s boring? Taking care of a baby. Do you know what helps with that boredom? Having a podcast going in one ear at the park so you don’t go completely batshit loony.

I can’t imagine why I felt the need to have non-infant sounds in my world.

So here I am, filling my days with constant stimulus from other people. Other people telling me stories, entertaining me, making sure I never have to come up with a way to entertain myself.

Now, I’m not saying that there weren’t times when this was a totally valid tool for survival in my world. But now it’s just a weird, embarrassing crutch. It’s atrophying my imagination, letting my critical thinking wither like an unused limb.

I’m going to come out and say it: Podcasts are making me dumber.

Finally, I’d had enough, and cut myself off cold turkey from listening to anything before I fall asleep, since that’s the first culprit, and the most obviously difficult to get rid of. And you know what? It’s great. Not, like, “Ugh, yeah, I feel good going to the gym because now I’m strong” great. Like, “Wow, I just found out you can eat ice cream for dinner!” great.

Ed. Note: I have not yet actually found a way to eat ice cream for dinner every night, or at least not without significant drawbacks.

It turns out I like my own mind better than I thought I did. And that thinking is still fun, after taking a lengthy break from it. Apparently, I was actually getting tired of the constant chatter without realizing it, and, for the first time I can remember, I actually look forward to being bored.

…Though you’ll still pry my favorite podcasts from my cold, dead hands. Just because I’m cutting back doesn’t mean I’m stopping entirely. I’m not crazy. 

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