By Ruth Perkins Lee
Our youngest was recovering from being sick and had been staring at Netflix for way too many hours. When I shut it down, she wanted to know what to do. “Not my problem,” I replied. Our children don’t tell me they’re bored; otherwise, they’re instructed to get out the Clorox wipes and our baseboards are clean again.
She figured it out and I got to pretend to eat a lot of Play-Doh food. A lot. I heard about the game she was playing in her head. She read a book. As she settled down for a nap, the quiet led to a glimpse into her imagination. She wasn’t quite finished wandering around in her brain.
Her imagination led her to her 8th birthday this month. Her sister got a dog for her 8th birthday. (That’s another story for another day. Let’s just say it begins with “Mom was out of town…”) It’s fairly simple logic with the exception of the mom, who declared no more pets.
As the quiet allowed her imagination to work on her birthday requests, she named her proposals: a dog or her ears pierced. I didn’t even respond. Ear piercing is a 12-year-old birthday rite of passage. (Guess who just got her ears pierced? Correct. Her older sister.)
Back to the quiet of supposedly taking a nap. And then….
A dog or her ears pierced or a private lab.
Not a Labrador — a laboratory. Underground. With a secret entrance that only mom and dad could know about but not her sister. And a lot of cool stuff in it.
Back to the quiet. And then…
A dog or her ears pierced or a private underground lab WITH her bedroom. So that I could tell her older sister that her room was now empty and older sister could put in a hot tub that all four of us could enjoy.
I was reminded during this conversation that “boredom” is the playground for imagination — of fanciful dreaming, of no boundaries. Of not saying “but what about” or “we can’t do that” or “that’s not possible.”
Do we know how to be bored?
What does it mean to be bored in our highly-driven lives full of the next thing, to-do lists, meetings, car pool, practices, set schedules, and very little free time? For most of us, there is certainly not enough free time to actually get bored. Do we schedule it? “#3. Be bored. Hmm…wonder how much time I need to budget for that?”
Boredom. The boredom of childhood that leads to made-up games with friends, staring at clouds trying to see shapes, exploring somewhere we’ve never been. Wading into the stream because it was there. Creating fanciful laboratories with Legos.
When our family actually has a chance to be bored, the Lego structures are pretty complicated, simple board games receive a lot of extra added-on rules and guidelines for play, there are fossils in the backyard, superheroes defend our home, the birds at the feeder get names and stories. Conversations ordinarily quick and hurried become a lazy river of longer, meandering thoughts. Ingredients for cookies suddenly appear on the counter.
In our congregations, the youth might be the best at boredom. When electronics are forbidden and there is no structure to the time together, there’s a slip-and-slide made of garbage bags outside the dorm rooms at camp. Obstacle courses are designed in the youth room. Putt-putt needs only some kind of ball hit into some kind of cup. Playing cards appear and games are taught. Stories are told. Songs are made up. Shared memories are made that will permeate the youth group until they graduate, and into that community the work of Christ flows.
For they are learning to live together. To welcome each other. To pass on traditions. To teach each other out of their own knowledge and experiences. They are valued for being who they are and what they have to offer each other.
What would it look like for our congregations to be bored together? For our job as ministers to be creating a space void of something to do and then holding the boundaries so that boredom sets in? Imaginations are loosened and then unleashed — for the sake of imagining, not brainstorming. Common experiences are created, and we walk away with shared memories of a sacred time that had no agenda. Let’s harness the God-given power of imagination and see where it takes us.
By the way, my daughter is still playing and planning in the lab in her mind. And I’m currently looking for a dog.
Ruth Perkins Lee is Director of Ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.