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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.