When I was growing up—way back in the days before cable TV and cell phones, when only the parents had cameras and only the nerds had computers—boredom was a regular companion. He followed me to school each day and rode along on car trips. He lived inside my closet with the fancy pants and sweaters. He tortured me on the sofa whenever any adults came over.
“Sit still!” my mom would say, though boredom endlessly poked and prodded. “Sit up straight,” she would ask, as he stood on my shoulders and howled inside my head.
Over the years, I found new tools to tame him. First, there were balls to throw and kick, then books I learned to read. Then drums to beat, guitars to strum, and songs I wrote to sing—just badly enough that boredom held his ears and ran away. Eventually, I could even wear the fancy pants and sweaters, and sit up straight and still beside the grownups on the sofa.
But as I matured, so did boredom. From a needling need for perpetual motion, he grew into something larger, a longer-term form of impatience. Instead of constantly shouting “Look! What’s that bright and shiny object?” he started whispering “Oh my God, how long is this going to take?”
Mom’s counsel for enduring boredom’s tortures grew up, too. When I said, “I can’t believe I have to work a 12-hour shift,” she responded with an unexpected, perspective-inverting phrase: “Oh, Steven, you can stand on your head that long.”
Likewise when I complained that I would have to wait a full year to get my driver’s license. And again before a dreaded final-exam week. And again when I wanted to leave my first job and go back to graduate school. Each time I looked forward impatiently, Mom’s answer was the same: “You can stand on your head that long.”
I even heard her use this counsel on herself once, when she learned that she would have to undergo another round of chemo. “I’m dreading the next couple of months,” she told me. “But I guess I can stand on my head that long.”
Mom’s phrase has been echoing in my head this week, as we all ask, “Oh God, what next?” and wonder, “How long is this going to take?” We’re all feeling cooped up and anxious and, yes, already a little bored. And we’re really just getting started.
The coming weeks and months may well take more patience, more wisdom, and more resourcefulness than most of us have ever yet had to muster. They may well require new types of moral and social fortitude.
I don’t pretend to have easy answers in such a moment. But I think it’s likely the hard ones begin with what Mom always tried to teach me: You’re stronger than you realize. You can find new ways to balance. Like all things, this too shall pass. And in the meantime, you can stand on your head. Much longer than you think. Much more creatively than you’ve yet to imagine.
So break out the balls, the books, and the various musical instruments. Feel free to use phones and computers, too; just don’t let them use you. Tell people that you love them since we can’t give hugs and handshakes. And when in doubt, just act like the person you know you ought to be—the one your grandmother would be proud of.
I have faith that the fortitude we all need now will find us. Our first job is just to seek it. And if we keep our eyes open, we might even discover some interesting new perspectives, while we’re looking at a world turned upside down.
If you get dizzy you know where to find me. We’re never far from each other these days!
I love you,