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Extending Boredom

Adam J. Cox's The Case for Boredom
Extending Boredom

Three cheers for having nothing to do and doing nothing.

That is the essence of Adam Cox’s argument in this interesting and provocative analysis of why children seem to tend so naturally to incivility in our culture today. Cox, a clinical psychologist and author of Boys of Few Words: Raising Our Sons to Communicate and Connect (Guilford, 2006), takes a fresh, careful and practical approach to this question, and he does so in a way that is not only relevant to child psychology, but to all of us living in twenty-first century America.

Cox begins with the problem he has faced of teaching children, particularly boys, to be civil. As he puts it, “Public incivility now defines the national character as much as independence, perseverance, and prosperity.” And the incivility he describes is more than just a loss of manners, but an active caring for others, such that one seeks to benefit their lives and the mutual society they inhabit. To say that kids are all about themselves today is partially true, but even that idea doesn’t explain why children so regularly avoid the civil posture that would actually benefit them as much as it does the society.

Why is there so little civility today? Cox argues that it has primarily to do with one thing: the annihilation of boredom: “Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do; the threshold has been drastically lowered.”

The obvious culprit for the demise of boredom in our world is the various electronica that fill our lives with what Cox calls a “ubiquitous, battery-powered cacophony of multisensory junk food”. We have become so used to being stimulated that it feels normal, and the absence of stimulation feels unsettling. The accessibility of information and therefore of new stimuli is so instantaneous that the gaps in our lives have shrunk to the vanishing point, and our equation of activity with happiness makes us seek out more stimulation and eschew reflection, causing the problem to become even greater.

But is lack of boredom a problem? Isn’t boredom a bad thing? And what is its connection to civility?

Yes, boredom is bad except in one respect Cox argues. “While boredom is hardly something to strive for, its presence confirms the existence of brief gaps in the continuous stimulation that dominates the thinking cycle of many kids. These pauses enable thought and reason to infuse action; they are boredom’s natural habitat, and the genesis of civil behavior.” The Christian would add that a person’s moral compass is calibrated most often in quiet times of reflection on Scripture, in prayer and in moral self-analysis. Without these, we would all be like the Israelites in the days when there was no king in Israel, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Electronic devices are not the only reasons Cox finds it hard to teach young boys civility. He links it to two other failings, ones adults could also learn from: a distaste for subordination and an obsession with fun.

Being kind or treating an adult with civility is not cool to most young boys. It does not match, Cox says, the narratives of power, autonomy and superiority they often construct for themselves. “Civility feels like submission or servitude to these boys and as such is inconsistent with their idealized selves.”

Additionally, the idol in our culture of satisfaction without exertion, particularly encapsulated in the notion of “fun”, gravitates against the cultivation of civility. “In contrast, civility is constructed brick by brick, one example at a time. Being civil is rarely fun—it requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium. While happiness and contentment are civility’s ally, fun, as defined by the relentless quest for pleasure, is tragically its foe… In this new topography of mind, boredom isn’t just dull; it is out of sync with the tempo many boys have come to associate with strength and wellness”.

In an early episode of House of Cards Claire Underwood, wife of the despicable Congressman at the center of Netflix’s blockbuster series relates why she married Francis (the Kevin Spacey character). “A lot of people told me they could make me happy, but only Francis promised me when we got married, I would never be bored.” That’s what won her. And she has no moral compass at all.

The article can be found HERE.

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