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The thrill of boredom. Modern life and technology cut out life’s boring moments, when our imagination can soar. By Albert Read

Features | By Albert Read

Bored: Issac Newton

Modern life and technology cut out life’s boring moments, when our imagination can soar. By Albert Read

Modern life and technology cut out life’s boring moments, when our imagination can soar. By Albert Read

While making tea, I recall a friend’s advice.

‘Get a Quooker,’ he proclaimed, referring to a newfangled kitchen tap that can deliver instant boiling water to the teapot. He added, ‘Banish the boredom of waiting for the kettle to boil!’

His counsel could apply to many humdrum routines (waiting for the bus, walking to post a letter). There was an implicit notion that boredom is dead time, better used elsewhere, were it not for the dull necessity of quotidian tasks.

I set to work researching the cost of the boiling tap (£1,000+) and the upkeep.

I grew wary. Do I actually mind waiting for the kettle to boil – while standing there, alone with my thoughts, staring out of the window? Or do I rather appreciate it? Is a little bit of boredom such a bad thing?

In modern Western society, boredom is perceived as an unqualified negative.

We even fear it a little, reaching for our mobile phones to check our social-media feeds while riding a few floors in a lift. We seek ways to iron out the small gaps in our lives, replacing the careful chopping of the onion with an instant Deliveroo swipe.

For our children, the position is worse: boredom is a vanishing memory.

Rather than spending a long, slow afternoon of playing Monopoly, they are hypnotised by the effortless, passive stimulation of the Play Station 5. If they say they’re bored, their parents, with an icy rush of anxiety, will instantly reach for their wallets to fund outings to trampoline centres and games of laser tag.

Some parents might receive the news of this boredom as an opportunity – to encourage their child to do nothing or perhaps, as Leonardo da Vinci advised, to lie on the grass and look at the clouds, observing their curious shapes and movements. These parents might recall their own long bouts of inactivity during formative summer holidays, and the falling back on their own inner resources – devising new games on long car journeys or getting lost on a country walk. Such practices all strengthen the muscle of the imagination the better to face the provocations and opportunities of later life.

It is during the quiet moments that the imagination comes alive.

It is between the layers of existence that the best ideas happen. Isaac Newton was almost certainly bored when he was forced to leave Cambridge because of the plague, to return to his parents’ house at Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire, and stare absent-mindedly at an apple tree.

Archimedes experienced a feeling that some would now call boredom, rolling around in his bath, his mind partially disengaged as the water trickled over the sides, allowing him to run down the street and cry, ‘Eureka!’

Boredom provokes a useful partial disengagement. The gear stick is in neutral, thoughts coast and the membranes of the mind soften, allowing the unconscious to do its work.

Boredom denotes an immunity to the potential of life’s lacunae. We might rebrand it instead as ‘stillness for the mindful’, to be found in the interstices of life. The Japanese understand this notion and even have a word for it – ma – arising from the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and selflessness. It is a comfort with silence amid conversation; the quietness of an intimate relationship. It is the pause in which life deepens its imprint.

There is no English word for ma because we do not really grasp the concept. We are conditioned to feel awkwardness and tension with boredom.

We associate calm ritual (such as boiling a kettle) with inefficiency. Words like ‘gap’, ‘absence’ and ‘delay’ carry connotations of negativity and failure. We are conditioned to value things, not the absence of things.

An accelerated world alters the wiring of our minds, and we expect, in turn, accelerated art forms. In the arms race for attention, video, gaming and social media shorten and intensify experience to hold still the hovering thumb on the mobile phone.

In this quest to eradicate boredom, we do not quite know what we are losing. We have no way to measure the small, imaginative treasures, momentary reflections and serendipitous journeys we unwittingly sacrifice at the altar of this new impatience.

While the march of technology brings many rewards, we are beginning to realise that something quieter and more intangible is disappearing – with only dimly-understood consequences for the imagination, empathy and happiness.

What is the solution? To start embracing boredom.

Back in the kitchen, out of the window, I observe the clematis and I spy a blackbird hopping on the garden wall. Meanwhile, behind me, the drip, drip of the loosened, non-boiling kitchen tap evokes a memory from Nabokov’s Speak, Memory.

As a child, Nabokov would move the bathroom door back and forth in time with his own dripping bathroom tap and ‘a dreamy rhythm would permeate my being… I appeal to parents: never, never say, “Hurry up,” to a child.’

The kettle eventually boils. As I pour the water, I conclude that there are moments when nothing much happens, and yet you feel most alive.

When I next see my friend, I tell him, ‘I’ve decided to pass on the Quooker.’

The Imagination Muscle by Albert Read (Constable) is out now

This story was from May 2023 issue. Subscribe Now