5. Make Room for “Fruitful Monotony”

russellThis is topic #5 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, #4 was about the moral weight of the stories we tell, and this one is about the detrimental effect of passive entertainment on happiness.

As always, I begin with the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:

“In a chapter titled ‘Boredom and Excitement,’ Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

[…]

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.

Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.


The more I engage in this project, the more curious I become about Maria Popova, creator of Brain Pickings — and not just because of the 16 choices she made, but also of how she chose to summarize each one. “Make room for fruitful monotony” is taken directly from Russell’s words; the central comparison he thinks about is this:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs, and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

So he’s saying to make room for the kind of boredom that comes when you don’t take drugs? My understanding, after reading the whole chapter (included at the bottom of this post if you want to read it — and it’s often quite funny!), is that his real concern is the stultifying kind of boredom. In this chapter, Russell thinks through the importance of not filling every moment with passive entertainment. If you spend too much of your time in that kind of stultifying boredom, you lose something essential. He thinks it’s especially important for children, and I agree.

But no matter how old we are, don’t we all talk about wanting to put down our phones, get offline, turn off the television? I think he would be appalled by the way we’re now so completely tethered to our electronic devices, and I doubt too many of us would disagree. Setting aside the way we are left disconnected from other human beings, and setting aside the health effects of all the sitting and absorbing passive entertainment, his concern is that it leads to unhappiness. And I think it does too — he’s right, even if it’s sometimes hard to step away from the electronic world. In the chapter he says that we are so afraid of boredom that we pursue excitement relentlessly, and that “certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony.” Poetry, art, creation, insight, we distract ourselves away from the quiet monotony that gives rise to these possibilities. Russell sees this outcome:

“…a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

YES. Little men. He makes a frequent connection to the earth, to nature, as a source of experiences that energize and create happiness, and again I think he’s right. It’s kind of like we’re setting ourselves up to become smaller and smaller and smaller: we stare at screens inside our homes, absorbing ‘entertainment’ created by other people, and often uncritically. We become mole people. For myself, when I’ve done that too long — easy to do, since my work is on the computer and I work most waking minutes — I end up feeling hollow and soul-empty. Time whizzes past and it’s gone and I don’t even remember how I spent it. In the very rare time I have a break from work and just have a day to spend however I wish, I get so much more bang for my buck by being in silence and away from electronics. The hours are so slow and thick, and my pleasure in spending them is palpable. I end the day with a very deep satisfaction and happiness, always.

You know how when you’re thinking about something, you start seeing it in a variety of places? I’m reading Per Petterson’s stunning Out Stealing Horses and came across this passage. His elderly protagonist, Trond, had just moved to an isolated cabin in the wilderness:

“I did not bring a television set out here with me, and I regret it sometimes when the evenings get long, but my idea was that living alone you can soon get stuck to those flickering images and to the chair you will sit on far into the night, and then time merely passes as you let others do the moving. I do not want that. I will keep myself company.”

(I’m sure I’ll write about this book, it’s so beautiful and a meditation on the past and trauma.) Anyway, I have more things I want to do than time to do them (c’mon lottery!!), but I do slip into a rut of electronic background distraction now and then. It happens much less often since I undertook my anti-flailing project 18 months ago and accidentally started doing only one thing at a time, but I can still slip into the multitasking habit if I’m not paying attention and what pulls me out of it is the awareness of feeling bad — ah! No wonder!

How often are you at home without the television going? Without music playing? With your phone and computer put away? How often are you in silence? NEVER? Is that how often? I wonder what would happen if you did that for one hour. Does the idea make you nervous? I suspect it makes many people nervous, and for a similar reason that meditation makes people nervous — having to come face to face with yourself in a sustained way, OY.

To me, this one feels like a real resolution, like a deepening understanding of something I’ve been working with already. So to date, my understanding of the five ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.
  5. Be alone with yourself, without distraction.

And now I’m off to topic #6, “Refuse to play the perfection game” by the most excellent Ursula K. Le Guin, whose thoughts on this issue are not just inspirational, they’re quite moving.

OH! And by the way, I found the whole text of the Russell book online here, and in case you want to read the chapter yourself, you’ll find it below:

Chapter 4: Boredom and excitement

Boredom as a factor in human behaviour has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves. It has been, I believe, one of the great motive powers throughout the historical epoch, and is so at the present day more than ever. Boredom would seem to be a distinctively human emotion. Animals in captivity, it is true, become listless, pace up and down, and yawn, but in a state of nature I do not believe that they experience anything analogous to boredom. Most of the time they are on the look-out for enemies, or food, or both; sometimes they are mating, sometimes they are trying to keep warm. But even when they are unhappy, I do not think that they are bored. Possibly anthropoid apes may resemble us in this respect, as in so many others, but having never lived with them I have not had the opportunity to make the experiment. One of the essentials of boredom consists in the contrast between present circumstances and some other more agreeable circumstances which force themselves irresistibly upon the imagination. It is also one of the essentials of boredom that one’s faculties must not be fully occupied. Running away from enemies who are trying to take one’s life is, I imagine, unpleasant, but certainly not boring. A man would not feel bored while he was being executed, unless he had almost superhuman courage. In like manner no one has ever yawned during his maiden speech in the House of Lords, with the exception of the late Duke of Devonshire, who was reverenced by their Lordships in consequence. Boredom is essentially a thwarted desire for events, not necessarily pleasant ones, but just occurrences such as will enable the victim of ennui to know one day from another. The opposite of boredom, in a word, is not pleasure, but excitement.

The desire for excitement is very deep-seated in human beings, especially in males. I suppose that in the hunting stage it was more easily gratified than it has been since. The chase was exciting, war was exciting, courtship was exciting. A savage will manage to commit adultery with a woman while her husband is asleep beside her, knowing that it is instant death if the husband wakes. This situation, I imagine, is not boring.

But with the coming of agriculture life began to grow dull, except, of course, for the aristocrats, who remained, and still remain, in the hunting stage. We hear a great deal about the tedium of machine-minding, but I think the tedium of agriculture by old-fashioned methods is at least as great. Indeed, contrary to what most philanthropists maintain, I should say that the machine age has enormously diminished the sum of boredom in the world. Among wage-earners the working hours are not solitary, while the evening hours can be given over to a variety of amusements that were impossible in an old-fashioned country village. Consider again the change in lower middle-class life. In old days, after supper, when the wife and daughters had cleared away the things, everybody sat round and had what was called ‘a happy family time’. This meant that paterfamilias went to sleep, his wife knitted, and the daughters wished they were dead or at Timbuktu. They were not allowed to read, or to leave the room, because the theory was that at that period their father conversed with them, which must be a pleasure to all concerned. With luck they ultimately married and had a chance to inflict upon their children a youth as dismal as their own had been. If they did not have luck, they developed into old maids, perhaps ultimately into decayed gentlewomen – a fate as horrible as any that savages have bestowed upon their victims.

All this weight of boredom should be borne in mind in estimating the world of a hundred years ago, and when one goes further into the past the boredom becomes still worse. Imagine the monotony of winter in a mediaeval village. People could not read or write, they had only candles to give them light after dark, the smoke of their one fire filled the only room that was not bitterly cold. Roads were practically impassable, so that one hardly ever saw anybody from another village. It must have been boredom as much as anything that led to the practice of witch-hunts as the sole sport by which winter evenings could be enlivened.

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

Girls nowadays earn their own living, very largely because this enables them to seek excitement in the evening and to escape ‘the happy family time’ that their grandmothers had to endure. Everybody who can lives in a town; in America, those who cannot, have a car, or at the least a motor-bicycle, to take them to the movies. And of course they have the radio in their houses. Young men and young women meet each other with much less difficulty than was formerly the case, and every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel.

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty.

I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view. Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred. When savages have first tasted liquor at the hands of the white men, they have found at last an escape from age-old tedium, and, except when the Government has interfered, they have drunk themselves into a riotous death. Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbours have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs, and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities. I am not prepared to say that drugs can play no good part in life whatsoever. There are moments, for example, when an opiate will be prescribed by a wise physician, and I think these moments more frequent than prohibitionists suppose. But the craving for drugs is certainly something which cannot be left to the unfettered operation of natural impulse. And the kind of boredom which the person accustomed to drugs experiences when deprived of them is something for which I can suggest no remedy except time.

Now what applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty. I do not want to push to extremes the objection to excitement. A certain amount of it is wholesome, but, like almost everything else, the matter is quantitative. Too little may produce morbid cravings, too much will produce exhaustion. A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

All great books contain boring portions, and all great lives have contained uninteresting stretches. Imagine a modern American publisher confronted with the Old Testament as a new manuscript submitted to him for the first time. It is not difficult to think what his comments would be, for example, on the genealogies.

‘My dear sir,’ he would say, ‘this chapter lacks pep; you can’t expect your reader to be interested in a mere string of proper names of persons about whom you tell him so little. You have begun your story, I will admit, in fine style, and at first I was very favourably impressed, but you have altogether too much wish to tell it all. Pick out the highlights, take out the superfluous matter, and bring me back your manuscript when you have reduced it to a reasonable length.’

So the modern publisher would speak, knowing the modern reader’s fear of boredom. He would say the same sort of thing about the Confucian classics, the Koran, Marx’s Capital, and all the other sacred books which have proved to be bestsellers. Nor does this apply only to sacred books. All the best novels contain boring passages. A novel which sparkles from the first page to the last is pretty sure not to be a great book. Nor have the lives of great men been exciting except at a few great moments. Socrates could enjoy a banquet now and again, and must have derived considerable satisfaction from his conversations while the hemlock was taking effect, but most of his life he lived quietly with Xanthippe, taking a constitutional in the afternoon, and perhaps meeting a few friends by the way. Kant is said never to have been more than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house. Marx, after stirring up a few revolutions, decided to spend the remainder of his days in the British Museum. Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting to the outward eye. No great achievement is possible without persistent work, so absorbing and so difficult that little energy is left over for the more strenuous kinds of amusement, except such as serve to recuperate physical energy during holidays, of which Alpine climbing may serve as the best example.

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements, such as shows and good things to eat, and they do not realise the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.

I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony. Take, say, Wordsworth’s Prelude. It will be obvious to every reader that whatever had any value in Wordsworth’s thoughts and feelings would have been impossible to a sophisticated urban youth. A boy or young man who has some serious constructive purpose will endure voluntarily a great deal of boredom if he finds that it is necessary by the way. But constructive purposes do not easily form themselves in a boy’s mind if he is living a life of distractions and dissipations, for in that case his thoughts will always be directed towards the next pleasure rather than towards the distant achievement. For all these reasons a generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

I do not like mystical language, and yet I hardly knows how to express what I mean without employing phrases that sound poetic rather than scientific. Whatever we may wish to think, we are creatures of Earth; our life is part of the life of the Earth, and we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and animals do. The rhythm of Earth life is slow; autumn and winter are as essential to it as spring and summer, the rest is as essential as motion. To the child, even more than to the man, it is necessary to preserve some contact with the ebb and flow of terrestrial life. The human body has been adapted through the ages to this rhythm, and religion has embodied something of it in the festival of Easter.
I have seen a boy of two years old, who had been kept in London, taken out for the first time to walk in green country. The season was winter, and everything was wet and muddy. To the adult eye there was nothing to cause delight, but in the boy there sprang up a strange ecstasy; he kneeled in the wet ground and put his face in the grass, and gave utterance to half-articulate cries of delight. The joy that he was experiencing was primitive, simple and massive. The organic need that was being satisfied is so profound that those in whom it is starved are seldom completely sane.

Many pleasures, of which we may take gambling as a good example, have in them no element of this contact with Earth. Such pleasures, in the instant when they cease, leave a man feeling dusty and dissatisfied, hungry for he knows not what. Such pleasures bring nothing that can be called joy. Those, on the other hand, that bring us into contact with the life of the Earth have something in them profoundly satisfying; when they cease, the happiness that they brought remains, although their intensity while they existed may have been less than that of more exciting dissipations.

The distinction that I have in mind runs through the whole gamut from the simplest to the most civilised occupations. The two-year-old boy whom I spoke of a moment ago displayed the most primitive possible form of union with the life of Earth. But in a higher form the same thing is to be found in poetry. What makes Shakespeare’s lyrics supreme is that they are filled with this same joy that made the two-year-old embrace the grass. Consider ‘Hark, hark, the lark’, or ‘Come unto these yellow sands’; you will find in these poems the civilised expression of the same emotion that in our two-year-old could only find utterance in inarticulate cries. Or, again, consider the difference between love and mere sex attraction. Love is an experience in which our whole being is renewed and refreshed as is that of plants by rain after drought. In sex intercourse without love there is nothing of this. When the momentary pleasure is ended, there is fatigue, disgust, and a sense that life is hollow. Love is part of the life of Earth; sex without love is not.

The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. It makes life hot and dusty and thirsty, like a pilgrimage in the desert. Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind. A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.