Trust Boredom

“Would you take a pill which removed your boredom forever?”

I almost said “yes.” Boredom is excruciating. Doing nothing – meditating, sunbathing, kicking down the cobblestones – is lovely. Boredom is an unscratchable itch layered on top of that glorious nothing. Who needs that?

I almost said “yes,” but I know the trickery of thought experiments. I hedged: “yes, if it doesn’t change anything else about my life.”

“Oh, but that’s the point: what do you think it would change?”

Recently, I wanted to paint this gorgeous view:

As usual before starting a landscape, I tallied the things I loved about the view: the depth of the green of the poplars(?), the wildflowers scattered in the foreground, the glow on the lake.

A glorious view, but fifteen minutes later I was yawning. The vista was green on green on green, and trying to differentiate those ten muddy greens from each other made me want to shoot myself.

I paused and reconsidered. What was my aim in painting? Capturing my excitement about the view. Enhancing my appreciation. Riding the edge between representation and paint, playing with my brushstrokes. Loving nature like Joaquin Mir did:

Joaquim MIR I TRINXET. Gold and azure [oil on canvas], circa 1902 ...

Well, I sure as hell wasn’t heading in that direction. Even if I got the damned greens right, would that take me where I wanted to go? It would lead me to accuracy, to realism – not to the type of art that brought me alive.

I loved the depth of the color of the poplars, but did I love the particularities of their muddy color? I placed a stroke of pure, delicious blue in their shadows. I put purple on the trunks. I made the grass in the foreground emerald green because I love the color, then, seeing the grass pinking slightly as it dried, added a blob of pink in for good measure.

I didn’t know where this would take me; I loved every moment.

There are terrible pictures that have taken time and pain to make, intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material. They frighten the sensitive student for the message they carry is of the pain and boredom of their making.

Robert Henri, “Art Spirit

When I read this quote, I think not of painting but academic philosophy. How many papers had I read like that – intricate and difficult, results of grinding patience, research, great amalgamations of material? How many papers like this had I forced myself to read through tears of boredom, since they were on the topic of my dissertation – that great amalgamation of material I thought I had to write?

Henri gave me permission to trust my boredom. What if rather than a sign of insufficient stamina, it was a sign of taste? What if these texts were exactly what they appeared: meticulously researched crap?1

I used to feel guilty for how much “non-philosophy” was on my reading list: how much literature, pop science, education. About how much time I spent painting and writing non-academic essays, or polishing the words in my dissertation to my liking. I found those things so much more interesting than what I was “supposed” to do, but I approached them half-heartedly. Now I realized that it was how Henri had said:

People are often so affected by outside opinion that they go to their most important work half hearted or half ashamed.

Henri’s insight helped me write a better dissertation faster and more joyfully. I started aggressively skimming my bibliography and writing things I would actually enjoy reading. And these parts – faster, better, more joyfully – weren’t in conflict, as I’d thought – they were correlated! Henri says, startlingly:

It is easier, I think, to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it.

That’s not true for all senses of “easier,” but it points in the right direction. But then why do so many people do boring work? If it’s easier, why is having the will for it hard?

Doing and making what excites you is a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You risk judgment. You risk finding out that no one else is excited by what excites you. Straying from the beaten path, half of the time you’ll walk aimlessly through the darkling forest.

Being meticulous is safe. Doing what everyone else is doing is safe. Academia is – yes, safe.

At least, that’s what had brought me to grad school: safety, not excitement. I wanted to look like someone who does what she loves, but I was terrified of stepping outside of the strictures of academia (with its promises of status, perhaps even of stable employment) when my love flowed elsewhere.

Fear – of the “real” world, of judgment, of unemployment – brought me to academia. Boredom was the antidote which helped me escape.

Of course I wouldn’t take the pill from the start of this post. Boredom is a guide. It’s almost a moral compass. It’s what tells me that I have lost my “why.” Removing it would mean crawling patiently in the wrong direction.

People who suffer from congenital insensitivity to pain don’t live very long. They don’t notice that they’re ill until it’s too late; they burn, cut, and bite themselves without realizing.

Boredom is a type of pain, and it’s important for similar reasons. Maybe it’s even more important. I’m happy that my hand automatically escapes a hot burner before I even physically feel pain. But I wouldn’t want my boredom replaced by an automatic reflex, even if I ended up doing the same exact things I do now.

My painting – and my life – wouldn’t be mine in the same way if I didn’t actively use my boredom as a guide.

And my landscape? I painted over the patch of red-pink in the foreground three times before I found the right balance between safety and excitement, between getting it “right” and making it alive. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

[1] Taste is subjective, so this is all about what I personally find interesting, not what anyone else “should” be interested in.

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