Press the bored button

Food for thought

Press the bored button

Boredom is a modern invention. It is precious time wasted, a dish uncooked, an extra-marital liaison begun, an artistic impulse snuffed, a novel abandoned, a martyrdom, mini or major. However, boredom can be a powerful incentive too, with its own set of advantages, writes Shinie Antony

The world is bored out of its mind. The humdrum monotony of daily living takes its toll. While eyes are open and seem focused on flickering images, the soul has curled up in a corner with a ’nighty-night. In our relentless pursuit of entertainment, by the very act of ratifying most boring, more boring and least boring, we have become default experts in the field of boredom. It is the one modern-day malady that can turn fatal: death by yawning.

“Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time,” writer-illustrator Edward Gorey had said. “At any given moment, the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that’s what makes it so boring.”

The jaded businessman. The bored housewife. Glassy-eyed kids before the idiot box, or shooting classmates in school corridors. The Myth of Sisyphus. Taking that boulder up the hill and down the hill. Doing the same thing over and over and over again. Ad nauseam. Slowly and steadily, there’s a race to be lost. And while key memories invest the past with a speed purely for flashbacking purposes, the present is in excruciating slow motion. What has already happened and what will happen infuse our today with anxiety, robbing the here and now of vital immediacy and lending instead a surreal haziness to our day-to-day life, distancing us from what is actually happening. By the time the bubble wrap comes off, we are already inserted into tomorrow, with another 24 hours to kill.Mankind’s chasing of its own tail can be traced back to its inherently infantile need for a rattle and an eternal predisposition toward distraction. Setting off a chain of bigger rattle, better rattle, louder rattle, e-rattle, and thus running out of rattles altogether one day. All the while that man laboured from cave to skyscraper, the thing that kept him going was this: keeping himself entertained, keeping himself entertained.

In the 21st century, his toys have changed somewhat. And for the while that he is inventing or experimenting, creating or constructing, he is able to forget. But his nemesis is just around the corner, and therefore there comes a day he is all played out, when he will stamp his feet and demand petulantly and pettily ‘what next?’ For that is what boredom does — it resurrects from every death, returns from every exile. Like an inbuilt spiritual boomerang or a spring-fitted homing device. Lined up like zombies, handed various remote controls, man is conscious of his mortality like never before, flipping gadgets frantically, knowing fully well the futility of fighting such a powerful enemy. It is a toss-up what will get him first, ageing or sheer boredom.

The business of busy is to be busy, look busy. So we have a plan of action, plan B, back-up plan, game plan, master plan. To make it look like we are going somewhere, that at the end of duties done, chores, partying, we stand justified as buzzing bees. Here we are and this is what we do. But secretly, we are watching the others, fearing being watched in turn; a large part of the busyness owing to our notions of an active, meaningful, productive life. Conditioning apart, conscience apart, creativity runs its course. Then it’s back to square one.

Of course, we do not go gently into that ho-hum night. We subscribe to all available modes of amusement. Pop pills, run around faster, idolise icons, fake a deep, deep interest in everything around to negate the pointlessness we suspect at the bottom of it all. But in the end, there is the inevitable twiddling of thumbs, getting on that 365-day treadmill that is stationary; nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to talk to. We binge, drop out of schools, switch streams, relocate (from posh to posher address), end marriages (till boredom do us part), have affairs (the briefer the better) and swap jobs (for better pay/designation). Anything to stem the oncoming zzzzz.

Love in the time of internet

Says bestselling writer Preeti Shenoy: “I agree that we live in a time of mammoth levels of distraction. As a writer, I mostly feel I am competing with the mobile phone and the internet to grab the reader’s attention. The red light flashing on the phone, indicating that a new message has arrived, is far more alluring than printed words in a book. But more than the instant gratification and distractions that today’s times offer, what worries me is how impersonal interactions have become because of the invasion of technology.”Relationships are no doubt the number one casualty of this growing tic-tac-toe nature of contact, the eye going unmet by another eye. Everyone is connected to everyone via the social media, but scarcely a word to say to a neighbour. Sexting, roving eye, easy access to porn… The institution of marriage is often stumped by the brevity of a nuptial tie and the haste with which the parties concerned opt out.

Says Dr Vijay Nagaswami, author and psychiatrist: “As in every other domain, the ‘twitter mentality’ has slowly made its way into contemporary marriages as well as other intimate relationships. It’s almost like attention spans don’t last more than 140 characters. However, the most discomfiting aspect of this is that the onus is squarely placed on the partner to keep one happy and laughing and entertained. However, the problem in such a situation is rarely that of the partner’s. It is basically one’s own insatiable need to be relieved of boredom, a major malady of contemporary life.”

He adds, “In the past, boredom would enter marriages after decades of predictable living. Today, it can start soon after the honeymoon and people complain of ‘lack of compatibility’ because one partner is not able to amuse the other or share interests and activities. Fortunately, we are still able to realise that our partners need not be stand-up comics to keep us entertained, and that both partners can look elsewhere to relieve boredom. And the ‘twitter marriage’ soon becomes more than just a string of tweets and re-tweets.”

George Harrison once claimed that the Beatles saved the world from boredom, a back-handed confirmation that the world needs a saviour from boredom. We all know what’s happening to attention spans in the aftermath of all the new gadgets, smartphones, tablets and laptops; attention spans are shrinking with every wash. According to a British survey, a person switches between devices about 21 times in an hour. For homework and hobbies and addictive habits, children depend on technology.

Preeti Shenoy says: “The options today available to children to keep themselves entertained cannot even be compared to anything that we had as children while growing up. We are no longer surprised to see a two-year-old today handling an iPad and a smartphone with ease. Does this mean they are easily distracted? I have seen children playing a certain electronic game for hours and days, till they clear all the levels. Much like a real puzzle or a toy, which is discarded once it is ‘conquered’. I would say the distraction levels depend on the challenge that a particular game offers, and also the temperament of the child — how much they persist in solving a task.”

Boredom as sin

Since guilt is the signature tune of human life — explaining why religion, shrinks and astrologers are so sought after — several boredoms run like minor tributaries towards the main ocean. We may suffer, enjoy or just about bear boredom, but in the end, it is a sin. It is precious time wasted, a dish uncooked, an extra-marital liaison begun, an artistic impulse snuffed, a novel abandoned, a martyrdom, mini or major. The reflexes are many, but none quench or satiate, indeed they emphasise the copious tedium behind it, and the inevitable petering out, tapering off, dwindling of will behind whatever’s embarked upon. Forbidden, boredom is at its most seductive.

Life is calling you, says an ad. Life is passing you by, warns the poet. Is there life on Mars, ask the newspapers. Get a life, says the love of your life. Albert Camus said in The Plague: “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” It is boredom that makes you shop up a storm, stock up on teen clothes when you are middle-aged, call up old pals and reconnect, turn alcoholic, gamble, hit social network sites with a vengeance. If regret is thought to attend first-time actions, one can barely stand to rue repeats. A second career, a second marriage, a second kid… This is only the triumph of hope over stats.

But herein lies the future of humanity, the advances in science, the inventions, the wheel and the world-wide web. A non-vicious cycle of newer demands, an out-with-the-old-stale and in-with-the-new-stale. And out of a great big nothing can come new unheard of things. The void comes bearing gifts. An organic detox.

Says author-sociologist Susan Visvanathan: “Boredom only arises for those who have something to do, or were planning to do something, and it didn’t happen. For existentialists, time spent is time gone, so anyway it is spent is valuable. For those who meditate, there is never any boredom, since focused meditation takes care of hours otherwise lost in doing nothing. However, this is an exact space which can never be guessed about, but requires careful nurturing. Meditation and work usually go together, so such a person is never bored, or will never admit to being bored.”

Boredom can be a powerful incentive no doubt. Spurs victims to give up the old, take on the new. It is R&R — rest and recreation — for tired minds. A tool to launch yourself out of a self-dug pit. A little boredom is a good thing. Yawns regenerate; they inhale air, rev up oxygen, cool the brain, stretch tongue and throat muscles, take mammals from drowsy to alert. Blocked projects move, thoughts unclog, pull-outs from unviable missions executed, rethinks thought. Certitude is the culprit, with no guarantees on which way a sudden lack of interest can go; it can be for the best, it can be for the worst. Boredom is individualistic in the main, stylised to suit one party. Perhaps the ingenuity of boredom lies in the fact that no two people are bored in quite the same way. The ins and outs of ennui are unique to each individual. In this armed combat, the weapons adopted are personal, varying from fighter to fighter.

Says writer-journalist Humra Quraishi, “I don’t get bored. But, yes, I do get restless. Also, at times, I sit and brood and introspect. It is writing and writing alone that settles that restlessness and keeps one going. Nothing else helps. No amount of cooking, eating, shopping, chatting, dusting and cleaning, socialising can distract enough. It is writing that comes to your rescue, settles that restlessness and takes you beyond the very immediate.”

When we are up, we are up — and go to town about it. When we are down, we are down — “Prepare left shoulder,” we tell pals, “one solid crying coming up”. And when we are neither up nor down, a vacuum awaits. From being ‘bored to tears’ to ‘bored to death’, dullness takes the road most travelled. After the hectic running around to make ends meet and eke out some fun, living for the sake of living becomes the norm. To admit to being bored is to surrender, to put your hands up in the air and give up when you run out of places to run. You turn around at the wall and let boredom shoot. Bang. Nasty, trigger-happy little fellow, boredom.

Man makes nice to get the best out of society. Ultimately, illusions wear off and he is left with only longings which, once realised, lose their hold over him, and the inescapable nature of loneliness. One day, by and by, he finds himself rattling around empty rooms, not yet feeling sorry for himself but just catching his breath, and suspecting there’s nothing out there after all, that the whole life-to-death regiment laid out is perhaps a PR exercise, a conspiracy to keep things going for the rest of humanity, to stave off solitude.

What cuts across continents is not just joy and sorrow, ups and downs, coronations and assassinations, but a stubborn streak of sameness. The same old same old. The atlas spans synonyms in every direction. Wind-up toys, fancy degrees, promotions, fast cars, blown up dolls, night clubs, hangovers, ungrateful offspring, mortgage, achy knees, ticking clocks and calendars that are out of date. Before we know it, we are in adult diapers, listlessly gazing out of a window, trapped at last in the very unending dullness that we managed to dodge so far so successfully. It is a gray gloomy day.

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