About Boredom

By Cicily Bennion

Originally published in Vol. 17 of Mount Hope, this piece was a notable essay in Best American Essays 2020.

I am, for the most part, a boring person. This is not a good thing to say at the outset, I know, but I think it needs to be established. I am happily married, which is boring. I am squarely and securely a member of the middle class, which is also boring. I have no pets, I do not dye my hair, I eat spaghetti at least once a week: all boring. I have almost always done those things which were expected of me, though once, when I was about twelve years old, I climbed out a first-story window during Sunday school to escape the tedium of class, leaving behind the white walls and hard chairs, giving myself over to the colorful temptation of the outdoors. I must have been a mess of legs and skirt as I hoisted myself up onto the ledge and back down the other side while the teacher, tired of my antics, did his best to ignore my flagrant disobedience. But my antics were not entirely my fault—the boredom of the classroom compelled me to do it.

I am fond of John Berryman’s “Dream Song 14,” which declares that “Life, friends, is boring” and that he is “heavy bored.” And boredom is heavy, isn’t it? A sort of physical sluggishness overcomes me when I tire of the world, and it takes great effort to even lift my arms and support my head. Boredom is not an affliction I would wish upon anyone, not even my students, though they would never guess it by my lectures. More than anything else, I am made bored by long, empty days. I always start these days with a sense of optimism, certain that a free day is exactly the reprieve I’m in need of. I’ll settle on the couch with leisure in mind, but soon I’ll find that nothing sounds like much fun at all, and I become a miserable creature who refuses remedies and shuns life’s advances. In these moments, nothing can tempt me—books are a drag, television is too loud, and the outdoors are either too hot or too cold. Only the passage of time seems to lift this sort of ennui, and I’ll often find that by the next morning, when I have tasks in front of me again, the world seems colorful and I am light.

Unfortunately, a sort of dimness is often associated with those of us who complain of boredom. In his poem, John Berryman writes that his mother told him (“repeatingly”) “ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no // inner resources.” My own mother often told me that only boring people are bored. No disrespect to John Berryman’s mother or my own, but this association between dimness and boredom is, I believe, unfounded. It seems more fitting to question the intelligence of someone who claims to have never been bored at all—for certainly, such a person does not understand the concept. It is impossible to be in a constant state of starry-eyed admiration for the world and its novelties, and to never recognize or name a lack of interest in the world suggests to me that something fundamental is lacking in that person’s capacity for self-awareness. We must each have days that feel gray and dreary, days when the blood seems to have escaped our bodies and left us limp, weary, and desperately bored. Still, some will presume that it is I who lack something essential if I am so completely boring and bored. But rest assured that for all my faults, dimness is not one of them. I have spent nearly two decades now in the formal education system, and I have only once received a failing grade in a course. This was in Intro to Sewing, which I failed not because I was unable to sew, but because I was much too bored to bother attending. So, I believe it’s worth noting that after all these years, not once has an instructor accused me of being dumb. Dawdling, disorganized, distractible, and loud—yes—but never dumb.

If there is an association at all to be made between stupidity and boredom, I would suggest that it is boredom which leads us to stupidity, not the other way around. Even the highly intelligent people among us might become so bored that they temporarily fall victim to fits of stupidity and find themselves willing to do anything—no matter how pea-brained or dangerous—to alleviate the tedium. There are those who would disagree. They believe boredom is a necessary and useful emotion which spurs us to necessary action—that it is the mind’s whisper, reminding us to strive for self-actualization, or at least something less dull than this (whatever this is). Such a view purports that boredom is a sort of pain of mind, and just like pain of body, it is meant to protect us and tell us when to stop or go. But this view also assumes that boredom leads only to good action, or perhaps it supposes that any action is better than boredom. These people must never have observed children for any lengthy period of time—for children, when they are asked what inspired them to cover themselves in ash or flush dollhouse furniture down the toilet, often say that they were bored. And these pro-boredom people must not remember being a teenager. Or maybe they were just fortunate enough to never have been as bored as I was in my teen years.

I consider myself an expert in boredom, having grown up in rural Wyoming. In the absence of concert venues, a shopping center, or even new people to meet, many of my peers staved off their boredom with the stereotypical methods—mainly sex, alcohol, and drugs. But I stayed chaste and sober, and thus was driven to different forms of stupidity, which were not necessarily any better. On one occasion, I stood with my friends on a frozen lake throwing stones nearly too heavy to lift at the ice beneath our feet. Another time, I trespassed private property to climb to the top of a grain elevator, which, at about three stories high, was the tallest structure in town. And once, I was talked into playing a game where we held lit firecrackers in our hands, each of us playing chicken against an indifferent fuse to see who could hold onto theirs the longest before throwing it into the air and watching it explode. Fortunately, nobody lost any fingers that night.

Pig wrestling, I think, stands as the ultimate testament to the extreme nature of rural boredom. I like to imagine the first person to ever wrestle a pig. It must have been a man, one desperate to do something on the farm other than shovel manure. And so, he got a few friends together, oiled up the pigs, and tried to catch and place them in barrels. Or perhaps a few pigs got out of their enclosure only to find and tip over an oil can and roll around in the resulting puddle. When the farmer went to catch and return the pigs to the barn, he would have invented a sport. However it came to be, pig wrestling is a big hit—a custom honored in farming towns all over the country. In my hometown, there is an annual pig-wrestling competition at the county fair. These days, most participants seem to be teenagers (whose efforts are typically futile) or middle-aged women (who are by far the more impressive and successful group). I’m not sure where the men have gone—perhaps they’ve graduated to the monster truck rally.

Some might think it odd that middle-aged women would so excel at pig wrestling, but I would argue that all a good pig wrestler really needs is an excess of boredom, and boredom has always been closely tied to domesticity. In fact, one of the very first uses of the term “boredom” in the English language can be found in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, which described Lady Dedlock as suffering from a “chronic malady of boredom.” Though I’ve never tried to read Bleak House myself (fear of boredom prevents it), I can glean from online summaries that at least one major cause of Lady Dedlock’s chronic malady was her confinement to home and domestic living. And so, I’m left to assume that it is a sort of Dedlockian disposition that gives the women in my hometown a leg up on pig wrestling—after all, there is no shortage of domestic living going on in Powell, Wyoming. You may have already gathered this from my grade in Intro to Sewing, but I’m not exactly the domestic type. Still, even I have had days which were filled with nothing but puttering around the house, and by the end of those days, I feel bored enough to wrestle a pig. For this reason, domesticity is something I fear.

I have a theory that boredom and domesticity together create a vicious cycle; in the right conditions, one will lead to the other. When a man and woman with healthy reproductive systems are bored together for very long, they have children. And the more children one has, the more bored one becomes. And the more bored one becomes, the more children one makes. Of course, in this modern day and age, there are exceptions. Unlike those who came before us, we’ve been blessed with television and birth control, both of which are very effective at interrupting and preventing this cycle.

Still, even today, 15 percent of all babies born are the result of unplanned pregnancies, and I’m willing to bet that many of those unplanned pregnancies were the result of boredom and desire on a quiet Friday night. In fact, I am the result of an unplanned pregnancy. Upon hearing this, many would presume that I am the first child of a young mother, but in actuality, I am the last child of an old mother. My unplanned nature has never been any sort of secret, so I feel at liberty to tell you about it. My parents would tell you themselves, if they could. They have a habit of introducing me to others as “the best mistake” they ever made—a joke which, as soon as I understood it, I resented. But now, I have to concede that it is pretty funny.

Once, when I was eighteen and on a road trip with my parents, eating chicken nuggets at a Wendy’s somewhere in the western United States, I asked the question, “Why do you think I was born when I was?” I meant this philosophically; if God is in the details of our lives, as I’d been taught to believe He was, why would He have sent me to Earth so much later than the rest of my siblings? Were there perhaps people I was meant to meet who I wouldn’t have met if I’d been born, say, six years earlier?

My dad, though, took the question quite literally and responded by saying, “Well, we didn’t think your mother would be able to have children after she turned forty. We were using rubbers, but they’re no fun, so we weren’t very consistent about it.” Upon hearing this, I nearly choked on my chicken nugget, which is, in itself, a sort of accomplishment—chicken nuggets being mostly predigested. While it’s not exactly a pleasant thing for me to dwell upon (my parents’ sex life, that is, not the chicken nugget—though, that too, is certainly unappealing) it seems as though we’ve stumbled upon something crucial and I feel compelled to reflection—which is, I guess, what I’d hoped my question might facilitate in the first place.

I wonder if there isn’t something fundamental about me that was created or influenced by the realities of my conception—if being a mistake made me the untamable child I was, always cutting my hair and running away from home. Or maybe my nature preceded my body—maybe God couldn’t bear to give an impulsive spirit like mine a body that had been planned, prayed, and hoped for. I wasn’t in the plans, but my parents joke now that I was exactly what they needed—how dull their lives would have been without me, they say. Empty-nesters in their fifties? Unthinkable. There’s a chance it was my destiny to disrupt the very boredom that spawned me.

Am I assuming too much? Truthfully, I know nothing about the specifics of my own conception. I’m most comfortable assuming that it was rote, even unremarkable, but a glance at the calendar may be enough to refute this notion. Christmas, my father’s birthday, and my parents’ anniversary are all about nine months before I was born, so perhaps it was a passionate occasion after all. I’ll never know for certain.

What I know is this: I was born to a pair of people who had been coordinating their lives together for 20 years before I came along. There were, I’m sure, many well-worn routines that my arrival disrupted, but I feel equally certain that there were other routines that even I was not capable of disrupting. Forgive me for saying it, but it’s true that some things never change. My father and mother love each other. I have seen it in the way my mother reads aloud to my father on long car trips, in the way my father waters my mother’s flowerbeds, in the way they sometimes laugh together in the evenings like two weary children. They are often bored of one another, too. I know this because my mother, sitting in the passenger seat, doesn’t just read to my father as a kindness—she reads because he doesn’t like the silence and she has nothing new to say.

Boredom and love coexist. This is a lesson I might have learned if I’d been paying attention that afternoon when I climbed out the Sunday school window, trading a dim room for the light of the blue sky. It was one of those rare Wyoming days when the weather was neither too hot nor too cold, so I took off my shoes and stood for a moment on the sidewalk, barefoot and scrawny, before lying down on the grass. Through the open window above, the sounds of the classroom must have drifted to me, the teacher asking those Sunday school questions to which the correct answer was always some variation of, “because God loves us,” but I was listening instead to the passing cars and fluttering birds. I hadn’t been lying there for long before I began to wonder what exactly it was that I was supposed to do now. Despite not knowing, I stayed, remaining there because the sun on my face and the grass between my fingers felt like a blessing, and even when I closed my eyes, the world glowed.