This year of the pandemic taught us many life lessons. We understood the naked fear not just of getting sick but of unwittingly bringing a deadly disease home to loved ones. Many of us learnt the true extent of the privilege that enabled us to work from home and order our groceries online. Some finally realised what it takes to keep a household running. A few of us learnt to make Dalgona coffee. I understood the value of something I had always dreaded—boredom.
It used to be the bane of my summer holidays as a child. The initial excitement of “no school tomorrow” would soon give way to the sticky torpor of endless Kolkata summer days and inevitably, one day, to the despair of my parents, I would complain, “I am bored.”
The lockdown of the summer of 2020 took me straight back to those sluggish childhood summers. Every day was stuck in the same routine. When we turned on the news, it was following the same story around the world. Soap operas went into re-runs. We saw the same few faces every day as friends, office colleagues, the daily help all vanished from our day-to-day lives at the flick of a lockdown switch. In hindsight, I understand boredom too was a privilege, a luxury not enjoyed by those stranded in faraway cities struggling to get home or daily wagers with no income, or children separated from elderly parents—but at that time it just felt like being trapped in Groundhog Day. On the one hand, 2020 was an expanse of deadening boredom that gave us the term Blursday, where one day blurs into the next; on the other, it was a year of hyper-anxiety as we doomscrolled, tracking death tolls.
But it was not just the pandemic. When Joe Biden appeared to be the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, I remember telling an American friend that his party seemed to have chosen the most boring candidate they could find. My friend used to be rather unadventurous in his dining choices. We would tease him, telling him that he would pore over the menu and then invariably go with the first beef option. Biden, it seemed to me, was the “first beef option”—reassuringly familiar, wholesome and decent and rather unexciting. My friend responded, saying he hoped that after four years of high-octane reality television drama in the White House, Americans were finally ready for something “boring”.
I was not so sure. The US was the apotheosis of everything that was not boring. Growing up in stodgy socialist India, America glittered with the promise of excitement that was non-stop, like its 24-hour supermarkets. Our cars had names like Ambassadors, theirs were called Mustangs and Firebirds. They burnt flags, bras and draft cards. As a boy in Kolkata, I would read the superhero comics avidly. Even the ads for tiny “sea monkeys” in them looked unbelievably exciting. Later, I discovered they were not cute little swimming monkey-esque creatures at all. They were just some kind of tiny sea shrimp gussied up with advertising. But I did not know that then. Instead, I daydreamt that if I had a bowl of sea monkeys, I would never ever be bored again.
The American Dream was not merely about making a fortune or the 3BR house with a yard in a cul-de-sac in Silicon Valley. It was about the excitement of reinventing yourself, the liberation of pursuing your desires (and demons) without constantly worrying about what the aunties would think. America twinkled in our imagination like a refuge from boredom and drudgery. America was adventure, or at least the promise of it, like a sign on a monotonous highway—Next Exit 5 miles, Gas, Food, Excitement.
It took a pandemic, the tortured drama of the election of Joe Biden amidst Donald Trump’s clamour of fraud, the spectacle of vandals storming the US Capitol, and the chaos of the vaccine roll-out in the so-called developed world to finally understand the importance of what my friend meant when she talked about being ready for something boring.
This has been a lesson hard-learnt. When India went into lockdown during the early days of the pandemic, we were deprived overnight of so much that once entertained us—gyms, restaurants, bars, cinema halls, even the office water-cooler. Many of us have spent a year without travelling anywhere at all, something we could not have imagined a year ago. We post #ThrowbackThursday pictures of long ago trips on Instagram as if to reassure ourselves they were not figments of our imagination. For a while, every night before I went to sleep, I would think of a different place I had been to—Borneo, Penang, Hawaii—hoping that I would find my way back there somehow in my dreams.
But we also got to understand the value of much that was routine and mundane in the “old normal” we once took for granted—a dental check-up, a boring dinner with the extended family where an old uncle told the same anecdotes, a haircut at the salon. Now a friend coming to town to visit his elderly parents for the first time in over nine months frets about whether he should risk eating dinner at the same table with them. “Perhaps if we sit at opposite ends it will be okay,” he muses.
Boredom, I finally realise, has its value, in part because it enables the mind to wander, to be creative, to dream rather than seek quick external stimulation in another round of Candy Crush. But it’s more than that. Mastering the ability to endure boredom is also a form of self-control in a world that often does not live up to our expectations. We try to keep boredom at bay with our phones, constantly looking for something different. Sandi Mann, author of The Upside Of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, told Time magazine, “We’re trying to swipe and scroll the boredom away but in doing that, we’re actually making ourselves more prone to boredom, because every time we get our phone out, we’re not allowing our mind to wander and to solve our own boredom problems.” We just need more and more to stop being bored.
In a world with a “boredom problem”, Twitter-happy Trump was the perfect quick-fix antidote. The presidency of Trump was anything but boring. Every time the president tweeted, it launched a thousand memes and kept the talk shows buzzing. But ultimately Trump had to deliver more and more outrage to prevent his audience from getting bored. Like the crowds at the Roman Colosseum, we wanted more spectacle, more drama. Finally, the consequences were there for all to see as his supporters stormed the US Capitol, supporters that an article in The New Yorker described as a “maskless confederacy of the rebellious, the devout, the bored, and the bitter”.
Now when I scroll through the feed of friends, whether in America or India, I am struck by how we have had to recalibrate our lives, celebrate what we would have once considered boring. Meeting grandparents after months is now cause for Instagram celebration. Someone marked his first meal at the neighbourhood deli in a year. And Twitter has a Trump-sized hole. Meanwhile, there is a new president in the White House who, for all his gaffes, seems cut from a far more conventional cloth. Not long ago, I asked a friend I had not spoken to in a long time how she was and she said, “Nothing new.” And then she said, “And nowadays that’s a good thing.”
These days I too am finally learning to value the sweet smell of boredom in the morning.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.