This Lent, let yourself be bored
In his short story “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut describes a future dystopia that takes extreme measures to make everyone equal in every way. The United States Handicapper General ensures that exceptionally beautiful people, for example, wear ugly masks. Strong people must wear heavy bags that limit their agility.
And perhaps most poignant to the modern reader: Intelligent people wear ear radios that blast sounds every 20 seconds to disrupt their thoughts. Vonnegut published the story in 1961, decades before smartphones. Reading it now makes you wonder whether we are all carrying our own Handicapper Generals in our back pockets.
Notifications, the pull to check social media or email: We are familiar with these, with their effects on productivity and “deep work,” on our mental health, on our public discourse. The movement against addictive technology—led at least in part by former Silicon Valley employees—is exploring these issues in earnest.
But there are other, weightier consequences. Our spiritual lives—which is to say, our lives—depend on some level of emptiness, a quiet receptivity, that most of us might be quick to label boredom.
And what do we do when we’re bored? My hand twitches for my phone at the thought.
Our spiritual lives—which is to say, our lives—depend on some level of emptiness, a quiet receptivity, that most of us might be quick to label boredom.
God has often worked in the quiet, the mundane. He spoke to Elijah not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire, but in a “light silent sound” (1 Kgs 19:12). Jesus became incarnate not as a military or political leader but as a baby of humble circumstances. Even the moment of his resurrection happened without earthly witnesses, as far as we know. Mary Magdalene found an empty tomb.
It is not a coincidence that God likes to wait for our stillness before he makes himself known. How else to show us that he loves us for who we are, not just what we do, that he is as gentle and patient as he is powerful?
But where our minds were once less occupied, and perhaps receptive to divine inspiration—waiting in line, let’s say—we now turn to our devices. Modern technology has all but eradicated boredom, so intrusive and persistent are social media, the 24-hour news cycle and the culture of overwork. I’ll be the first to admit it: I check my email at stoplights. At stoplights! Lord, have mercy.
While I’m busy trying to soothe my existential discomfort, I’m missing out on communion with the king of the universe.
Here’s the thing: God doesn’t email me. And, sure, God speaks through other people, who may sometimes communicate with us by email. But that ache, that restlessness that drives me to my phone when there’s nothing else to distract me? It’s not going to be fixed by tending to my typical inbox, which generally gets about three times as many ads and newsletters as it does messages from real people with personal messages.
The worst part is that while I’m busy trying to soothe my existential discomfort, I’m missing out on communion with the king of the universe.
I doubt I’m alone in this struggle (nearly all U.S. adults own smartphones). So, if you are still considering what to take up for Lent, may I propose more quiet and less technology use in the margins of your day?
And we do have more margin than we may think. Even though our minds are often rightly occupied with work, time with loved ones or attending to bills and grocery lists, we also have bodily needs that anchor us to the present. We have to cook and eat. We have to do dishes and fold clothes. We have to shower, get dressed and brush our teeth. During these moments, we can pray, not necessarily through rote words but simply by opening our minds and hearts to God, by choosing silence over distraction.
“What we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless—the endless repetitions of a litany or the motions of vacuuming a floor,” writes Kathleen Norris in her book The Quotidian Mysteries.
So, if you are still considering what to take up for Lent, may I propose more quiet and less technology use in the margins of your day?
“What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit, and repetitive motions are conducive to devotions such as the Jesus Prayer or the rosary. Anything is fair game for prayer, anything or anyone who pops into the mind can be included.”
So it can be for any of us. I’ve probably prayed more over piles of laundry than I have in churches. And thank goodness, because my family produces a lot of dirty laundry.
As Lent draws nearer, we can begin to reflect: Do we open our hearts to God as we go about our days? Or are we voluntary participants in Vonnegut’s dystopia, disrupting every spiritual inclination with notifications and news feeds?
I’m still working out the particulars of checking my phone less often. Maybe I’ll try to keep it off my physical person more of the time: plugged in somewhere when I’m home; in the depths of my bag when I’m out. I’m expecting more boredom than immediate, obvious fruit.
But perhaps fighting for boredom is a way to love God that is unique to our digital age.
“In our utilitarian culture, where we suffer from a collective compulsion to do something practical, helpful, or useful, and where we feel compelled to make a contribution that can give us a sense of worth, contemplative prayer is a form of radical criticism,” writes Henri Nouwen.
“It is not useful or practical. It is simply to waste time for and with God.”