When Boredom Is A Great Thing

It was about the third week of teaching English, when I was fighting off a mild case of food poisoning, desperately drinking an orange Fanta (my first taste of soda made from sugar, rather than corn) to settle my stomach while sitting at a Turkish café to eat the same meat-filled fried pastry I’d had the previous two days for lunch, that I realized I was sort of bored.

This isn’t something you are supposed to admit very often, especially when you are somewhere officially exotic. I’d come to Kazakhstan ostensibly to teach and to spread the gospel (I had raised money to be an evangelical missionary), but I was really only doing the former. Many mission trips, it turned out, were as much for personal growth as they were for any grander theological purpose. I was doing plenty of the former, but the latter proved elusive, and in the end I realized that I could do that personal growth anywhere I set my mind to it.

I was reminded of this moment when reading a fascinating excerpt of Mary Mann’s Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. In recounting her job copywriting for a travel company — where she described places in exoticizing language meant to evoke the old age of discovery — she also realizes that most tourism is as much about boredom as it is anything else. This is presented as both good and bad: good, because the vulgar middle classes in England, so looked down upon by their wealthy lords, were trapped in boring places they longed to escape, but also bad because it led to a homogenizing of travel culture worldwide so that one can find a western-style bed and bathroom and food in almost any moderately-sized city in any country on the planet.

I had come to Karaganda, a medium-sized city as famous for its mines as the nearby Gulags that once imprisoned Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the way most young Americans wind up in Central Asia: falling for the cultural propaganda of the magic of the Silk Road, and then the weird sentimentality of the former Soviet Union, firmly believing it a crucible-region whereby I could become my True Self and thus evolve from my bland suburban childhood. It never quite works out that way, of course. A long purgatory at a community college in Northern Virginia, listless employment, general personal angst from an extended adolescence, had all combined to make me think that my life was simply not working the way it should, and so therefore finding a purpose and moving away would solve it somehow. I was bored: trapped, thwarted, unhappy.

It was 2003, long before the age of social media, when blogs were still a thing and people actually believed in writing out their thoughts with words and stories instead of with memes. Going to Kazakhstan to teach English on behalf of a Christian missionary agency seemed like the right way to do it, because that way I wouldn’t fall prey to the adventure-tourism-as-ministry that far too many of my peers did, and would thus have a “real” justification for the trip. I wasn’t one of those lame missionaries, you see, I was a teacher.

Of course the distinction in my head was a false one. The teaching I did, at a summer program for a business school available only to people with substantial financial backing (whether through work or their family connections), was ineffective at best. I can remember asking my students to discuss a Seinfeld episode, or to dissect the lyrics of that ubiquitous Coldplay song.

Much as Mann recounts in her experience backpacking through southeast Asia, my time missionary-ing through Central Asia wound up simply highlighting the same insecurities and personality faults I had at home. I was a closeted gay man in his early 20s, as equally self-loathing pretending to be straight-but-not-interested-in-girls at my home church as I was pretending to be straight-but-not-interested-in-girls in central Kazakhstan. You can travel as far away as you want, and observe as many different-looking people as you want, but in the end you never outrun yourself that way.

Being bored in a weird place (Da Ali G Show, which introduced the character of Borat, did not air in the U.S. until the year I left) struck me as totally weird. The Turkish cafe where I was eating sold mostly greasy meat-pastries that you’d spike with hot mustard; it wasn’t terribly good but it felt good to eat. The walk there from the school was along broken sidewalks hemmed in by untrimmed grass that sometimes stretched three or four feet high (I told myself that maybe Kazakhs preferred tall grass, because they were nomads a few decades ago, but really they just did not have municipal landscaping services). Electric lines for the trolleybuses draped across the street that the Khrushchyevkas defined into a long canyon. There was Cyrillic everywhere! These things should matter! They should be interesting!

But really: after a roll or two of film I couldn’t be bothered. Life in Kazakhstan was still the same: instead of waiting in traffic in Virginia and hoping no one would bash into my car I’d cram myself into a marshrutka and hope no one filched my money belt. I’d work, feel tired afterward, and puzzle what to do for dinner. I’d go to lunch with my coworkers, all Americans, and we’d sometimes eat shashlyk with onions and naan and sometimes would get soggy pizza at the Pizza Hut (no relation to the actual chain restaurant). A few elements of life had different names, and the brusqueness of Russian social interaction was a bit jarring, but the novelty wore off very quickly and just became yet another thing to feel exhausted by. In short order I was lying awake at night, wondering if the rumbling in my belly was hunger or food poisoning, unable to sleep yet unable to concentrate on a book, fruitlessly swatting at the mosquitos that snuck into my bedroom.

Every American who goes to these places eventually experiences a version of this quiet, lonely moment at night. It is escapism that more and more strikes me as toxic. Mann captures it nicely:

From [Thomas] Cook’s brochures to mine, travel marketing seems to be to blame for our collective time-travel fantasy. But while ads certainly aggravate the situation, they’re only responding to existing longings, the same as those of Don Quixote: the desire to visit a world that’s brighter and bigger than our everyday, never boring, and unblemished by any­ thing as ordinary as habits.

The sort of sentimentality she describes is a part of the evangelical missionary zeal as well: after all, the Book of Acts makes the many communities of early Christians feel vibrant, subversive, and alive, which is something the modern evangelical movement, tied as it is to extremist political conservatism, simply cannot be. The urge to escape that extremism, feel a faith that is more real somehow, that is directed at something beyond praying for one’s finances and medical needs, is perfectly understandable.

It is also hollow. Karaganda has around 500,000 people in it — it is the same size as Raleigh, Toldeo, New Haven, Tulsa, Fresno — and it is a very normal place: there are rich people and poor people, and areas of blight and areas of shiny office buildings. There are expensive restaurants and cheap street food, and it isn’t always obvious which one is more likely to give you food poisoning. The ordinariness of such a place is utterly uninteresting to the people I’d asked for money so I could go, so when I eventually came back to the states, to my home church, I spoke glowingly of how exotic this city really was. I went to a yurt (even if hippies have lived in yurts for years, and now they’re considered luxurious off-the-grid housing); I ate horsemeat and goat’s head and dumplings and noodles (even if Kazakhs also love burgers and fried potatoes and cucumbers); I rode an overnight train where they served tea instead of Diet Coke; the taxis are old Ladas instead of old Crown Vics; the churches have onion domes on top, just like the mosques; and so on. It seemed like better marketing, and better value for their money, than telling the honest, boring truth.

We aren’t supposed to be bored, and so we construct elaborate narratives to explain it away (“I’m not bored, I am reading the news on Facebook“). But boredom is, in a way, one of the essential experiences of our age. Industries revolve around the mitigation of boredom, in ways both elaborate and mundane. Escaping that isn’t really possible, for at the end of the day even going on a big trip is just another way of mitigating boredom.

More importantly, boredom is not such a bad thing. Boredom gives us time to think, to reflect, and to plan. Some of the greatest minds on earth celebrate boredom as essential to thinking, to creativity, to self-discovery.

There is a companion to that boredom which drives our desire to get out into the world:  loneliness. I don’t mean feeling lonely, but rather seeking the feeling of loneliness. A city like Karaganda might have 500,000 people in it, but when you can barely order food in Russian, the loneliness of your setting hits you quickly and deeply. In my case, that loneliness was magnified by two factors — my own theological disillusionment with the thinly-veiled conservative extremism driving much of the evangelical Christian movement, and my gradual acceptance of myself as a gay man who would simply be incompatible with their vision of the world.

And so for me, that loneliness and boredom had a powerful effect. It gave me time, which was lacking in my normal life, to think about myself and my place in the world. The isolation imposed by antediluvian internet access and expensive phone cards left me with few options but to try to read books and write in my journal — essential practice for anyone hoping to express themselves cogently. It clarified where I wanted to go, what I wanted to do, and gave me the space to really think about them, not just as escapist fantasy but in actual, practical terms. I realized that some dreams are simply too impractical for a responsible adult to pursue, but some are surprisingly achievable.

More importantly, it clarified that I simply could not live my life in the closet any more. At the time, I had no idea how or when I could come out of it, but the seed of that decision came from this boredom I felt in Central Kazakhstan nearly fifteen years ago: if I can bored in a place like this, I surely don’t need to cripple myself by living up to the expectations of others. There was, indeed, more to life.

Loneliness and boredom could not possibly be such bad emotions if they lead to such growth. Yet we are trained from birth to associate those twin emotions, boredom and loneliness, as negatives to be quenched. If I had told my missionary brethren at the time that I was lonely and bored — that I was unhappy that our trip hadn’t fundamentally changed me, and only highlighted how out of place I felt in my life — they probably would have said something encouraging and maybe prayed for me, but they wouldn’t have changed anything about my sorry state. I don’t think they could have, even if they had wanted to — because those emotions weren’t bad things to be purged, and because they had no idea what I really meant. Worse still, if I had told the churches that paid for my trip that the real value to my going was to grow the confidence to come out as a gay man then their reaction afterward would have been much less warm.

I did not lie to anyone when I told them about the church activities I did while abroad, and I did not pretend to convert anyone to the faith — I didn’t. Frankly, I did not do any of the things the evangelical missionaries expect you to do on these trips. I felt good providing a service by teaching idiomatic English, and I’m glad I did it. But, as a missionary, I was a failure. That’s okay by me.

So maybe boredom is something we should embrace a bit more when we encounter it. Perhaps, instead of trying to fight with it, subsume it into some pragmatic end, we should embrace it every once in a while, ride it out, and see what comes bubbling out of the subconscious. Who knows, you might be surprised by what comes out of your brain.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.