At the post office, the queue was seven agitated people long. Normally I’d have put in earbuds, listened to something on my phone. But I’d quit recently: No more headphones. No more podcasts on the go. No more Spotify at the gym. Boredom was my new fix, an extremely boring one at that. A cigarette that’s all filter, no smoke.
Earbuds are like underwear: It’s safe to assume that almost everyone’s got a pair on them at all times. Not just earbuds, but noise-canceling headphones, Bluetooth headsets. We use them for music, for conversation, to dutifully absorb the latest news or popular entertainment that so many of us treat like homework. Serena Williams caught flak last summer for wearing a pair of Beats by Dre on court at Wimbledon, but it only made her critics sound stuffy.
For 10 years, I rarely left the house without queuing up something to play. Then, one afternoon in October, I went for a run and forgot my headphones. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exercised without a constant stream of stimulation, a cranium full of sound. Nevertheless I continued. After 15 minutes, I started paying more attention to the trail. My mind shifted to daydreams. Soon I was actually enjoying myself. What happened?
Boredom is understood as that frustrating experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity. But it’s an extremely short-lived emotion, and perfect for airports, sidewalks, afternoons in the woods. Maybe two minutes pass before I’ve found something worthy of note. “Boredom becomes worse when a situation seems valueless,” wrote Peter Toohey in his book “Boredom: A Lively History.” In my experience, embracing boredom makes the world seem all the more appealing.
For example, that day in the post office, I scored: The man in front of me went nuts, leading to 20 minutes of high-quality eavesdropping. Apparently he lived with his elderly mother and was trying not to lose his cool over the phone – shouting into the microphone on his earbuds’ cable – while he walked her through the new password to their wireless network, some two dozen hieroglyphics that he needed to describe, one by one. Maybe she’d never heard of an ampersand before? It was comedy gold. But when I looked back in line, everyone else was missing out, their ear canals stoppered white.
My wife and I used to live in New York City. When we finally left it felt like the day was suddenly an extra hour long. Quitting headphones is similar. I daydream more. I have more ideas – mostly dumb ideas, but the volume’s increased. I’ll be grocery shopping empty-headed, and suddenly I’ll figure out a way to resolve the day’s work frustrations.
Something I’ve figured out in my boredom: To be at all smart, I need time to be stupid. Silent time – marked by barking dogs and traffic screeches and the murmurings of neighbors watching old movies. Time that’s reserved to be listless and absent-minded not only reinvigorates my desire in being interested in things, it gives me the energy to be interesting, or at least try.
Not that everyone wearing headphones is actually listening to something. The New York Times recently interviewed people who wear earbuds simply to be left alone. I know I’ve often shoved in earbuds to discourage chatty seatmates on a plane. Then again, soundless solitude may come at a cost.
One morning before 7 a.m., without headphones, I drove to a park. As I was getting out of the car, a man rode up fast on a BMX bike. He skidded to a stop next to me. He was big but looked strung out, a Nebraska linebacker turned junkie. I figured I was about to get jacked. “Hey,” he barked. “If I wrote a movie called ‘Revenge City,’ would you watch it?”
“If I made a movie,” he said slowly as if I was deaf, “ ‘Revenge City,’ would you watch it?”
I thought about it for a moment. “Based on the title, sure.”
Instantly he was smug, grinning darkly. “That’s what I thought.” Then he popped in his earbuds and pedaled away.
Headphones will come and go. Soon we’ll all have loudspeakers implanted at birth, and the rich will wear Bose earrings to advertise their high-end skulls. Silence is only golden when it’s rare, not nonexistent. But if there’s one constant about life, it’s that everyone has a story to share. The trick, perhaps, requires staying bored long enough to listen.
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Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of “You Lost Me There” and “Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.