I overheard a mother at a bus stop trying to interest her son in the video iPod she was carrying, apparently loaded with the usual kid shows. He was having none of it, though he wasn’t causing any disruption or disturbance, while she was in effect a drug pusher. The scene got me thinking about how we soothe our boredom, especially that of children.
Almost every parent insists that children’s unrelenting need for both attention and stimulation is exhausting. Given the tools at hand, it’s inevitable that parents use various means of pacification, increasingly electronic distractions. Some parents recognize that plopping the kid(s) in front of the TV means selling their children down the river of advertising (training them as rapacious consumers), and for some, there’s a sense of guilt. Lately, kids have portable electronic distractions (e.g., GameBoys and iPods) so that even the relative wholesomeness of summer camp is no longer free of electronics. And it’s bleeding into adulthood. Never mind the countless hours routinely forfeited to TV; now a gaming system, an Internet connection, a cell phone, a DVD collection, and a BlackBerry also clamor for time and attention. Workouts, rush hour commutes, plane rides, and virtually any idle time must now be complemented by an iPod or DVD. Electronics makers must be rolling their hands and twirling their mustaches, having convinced most of the population to be plugged in at all times, just as soft drink purveyors convinced previous generations that a meal isn’t complete without a soft drink.
So what’s with the cavernous emptiness of boredom that screams to be filled, even if only with the most banal of stimulation? Why is it so difficult to be content in silence, alone with our own thoughts? Like the T-Rex that can only sense movement in its field of vision, we’re evolved to notice and seek change rather than stasis, which has turned into a fetish for novelty. Many of us are also so ill-equipped to use our own creativity as a source of self-amusement, whether it be writing, singing, or even thinking, that we must instead turn our attentions outward and, in our general laziness, gather whatever stimulation is most readily available. With our current electronics options, much of that stimulation is empty of meaningful content, such as the graphics on a news program that do nothing but temporarily tantalize the eyes, or the variety of new musical styles that are all hook and beat and thump.
It used to be that when a child complained “I’m bored …” to a parent, an aphorism was delivered: “Boredom is the mark of an uncreative and impoverished mind.” The implication of that rebuke was that, by using the imagination, one could dream up things to do that would provide amusement and generate enthusiasm. Perhaps some parents still instruct children that way, but in public at least, the complaint “I’m bored” is usually interpreted as a fire alarm, sending parents scrambling to find something to quench the fire before some mischief sets in. The restless mind of youth transforms into the mind at rest, like the effects of a depressant. And the habit is easily formed: the expectation that stimulation is done to a person rather than something a person does for him- or herself. Over time, one effect is that one’s enthusiasms are dominated by outer directedness, which is to say that we cathect with celebrities, consumer goods, sports teams, alcohol, and drugs, all of which release us from the torments of being ourselves.
UPDATE: I just came across this new product. It’s a shopping cart with seating for kids and a TV screen. For the love of all things holy, don’t look away from the TV screen!!