“Always with you this freedom! For your walled-up country, always to shout ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ as if it were obvious to all people what it wants to mean, this word… But what of the freedom-to? Not just free-from. Not all compulsion comes from without.”
–David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
January 16, 2016, 2:00p.m.: I spent my evening before with the company of my roommates, and tonight I will see old friends from college. At this moment, however, I am sitting my room, without obligations and without company. I have no papers to write, no meetings to attend, no errands to run.
In other words, I’m bored as hell.
I begin to pace back and forth, trying to think of ways to pass the time. My eyes dart towards the computer lying dormant on my desk; old habits urge me to turn it on. This impulse is seemingly innocuous: I can simply use it to find some casual entertainment. I can fill this free time, like most Americans, with Netflix, YouTube, gaming, internet browsing, etc. And why not? I worked hard all week; there is no need to use this time productively as well. I can let these pastimes temporarily command my attention, giving me relief from stress and refreshing me for the upcoming work week.
This impulse, however, is followed almost immediately by disappointment, since these old habits are no longer an option. I stare at the closed laptop, resenting my decision not to give it power. In what now seems like a foolish pursuit of voluntary simplicity, Jeanette and I swore off internet for this month. We agreed to make the old ways of killing time no longer an option, to instead fill the time with more nourishing habits. But really, “nourishing habits” sounds like an idealistic abstraction in this painfully bland moment.
I lie down over my sheets, place my right hand over my forehead and apply pressure to my temples. My past self left me to face this boredom without any immediate means of escape.
And it’s awful.
January 17, 2016, roughly 24 hours later: I have just pulled the cord above my right shoulder, signaling the bus to stop at the approaching intersection. I am determined to resist the mindless, stir-crazy state I found myself in yesterday. I walk past the familiar ice rink, Chipotle, and fountain on my right and head north in quiet desperation. At last, I reach the heated, five-story atrium of Cincinnati’s downtown library. It is here that I hope to reform my leisure practices; it is here that I hope to move past both the unspoken yet looming self-contempt that comes from conventional entertainment habits, and the painfully boring idleness that comes from the habit’s absence.
I immediately notice a strange, out-of-place feeling when visiting this library with the intention of finding a book. Most library patrons use it only as a refuge, since it is one of the few buildings downtown where people can protect themselves from the weather without buying anything. Others are there to borrow the public-use computers for seemingly-varied purposes. A wrinkled white woman, glasses with transparent frames, stares with quiet intensity at the green background of her online solitaire game. Another patron—a black man, perhaps mid-30s, sporting large, black headphones with a frayed left liner—bobs his head rhythmically to a low-budget music video. This story repeats itself in dozens of ways across the other screens. Perhaps this too is a refuge, but naming how is profoundly more difficult.
January 27, 2016, 6:00p.m.: The familiar two-tone beeping of my phone alarm begins to play, reminding me to leave for the approaching bus. I finish the final essay in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, check out the films Inside Llewyn Davis and Love and Mercy, and depart into the cold.
There is quiet strength in my strides towards Government Square. For brief portions I let myself be present to each step, to each breath. This evening I return to my community, to laugh, to play, to reflect, to engage, to simply be with. But if everyone is away or preoccupied, I may spend the evening pursuing greater reflection through reading or writing. I may even play one of the two movies I intentionally chose, but this is the only entertainment I allow for the week. Those deliberate choices are my only options for the evening, and there is a certain resiliency I feel in knowing this.
The month is almost over, but I do not think I am returning to the internet in my home. In fact, I do not see me owning an internet subscription in the future. There is nothing to fear about boredom—it can be the gateway to pursuing our most intimately-held goals. The mundane is a canvas, and we are called to paint.
Justin Worthing, originally from O’Fallon, IL, joins VVC most recently from Xavier University, also a short bus ride from the VVC house. Justin’s intentionality invites his community members deeper into their commitment this year, through creative challenges like this to less committal invitations to join him for a warm beverage or a board game.