It was, we read constantly, ‘a tale of two lockdowns’. But while the first stage of lockdown divided us – into those with an absence of time, and those furloughed and facing a yawning surfeit of the stuff – the second stage united us. Bloated, stir-crazy, the Monopoly money long stained with red wine, we all began to feel inescapably, stultifyingly, earth-shatteringly bored.
At first, there was a novelty to being expected precisely nowhere. FOMO fell clean off the bone, like meat from a slow-cooked beef joint. No need to get dressed! Or apologise for being late! But in its place bloomed an unfamiliar sensation. One that we thought in our on-demand, modern world of 24/7 entertainment – with its next-day deliveries, boxsets and instant gratification – we’d all but erased.
That of boredom. The pandemic’s flavour of boredom was specific. It was, as Grazia columnist Emma Jane Unsworth put it recently in this very magazine, a busy-boredom. Busy, because everything becomes infinitely more complicated when done remotely, especially when you have to factor in 48 hours a week to hunter-gather your groceries. Bored, because life became relentless and repetitive; the weeks melding into one.
As the custodian of two small infants, I am no stranger to busy-boredom. You are undeniably busy when looking after children – playing with stickle bricks, or changing volcanic nappies – but those activities are not, I think it’s fair to say, always riveting. But where busy-boredom was once confined to parenting and other unpaid care work, or your job, or the life admin that comes with being an adult, it was rarely the sum total of our existence. We were able to seek respite and physical distance from its sludgy epicentre – at the pub, or in the cinema, or in an art gallery. Being unable to escape boredom (or, indeed, ourselves) sounds completely hideous – and for many it was. But amid the irritability and exhaustion came flashes of what felt like freedom. Don’t garrote me with your face mask, but what if a little bit of boredom is actually... good for us?
A little bit of boredom keeps you clear-eyed about your choices; an interlude whereby you may reluctantly interrogate and ponder, rather than making knee-jerk assumptions and decisions from a prism of everyone else’s opinions.
Now, I’m not suggesting a total rebrand of boredom; just a little renose. Boredom gets an unfairly bad rap. The word is almost onomatopoeic, with its soporific and droney elongated ‘o’. As the smug adage goes, ‘Only boring people get bored!’
That is nonsense, of course, but I don’t think that this new type of boredom is entirely irrelevant. In their new book, Out Of My Skull: The Psychology Of Boredom, the cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert and clinical psychologist John D Eastwood write that boredom is neither positive nor negative (though, if left untended, it can lead to depression), but a necessary part of the human experience.
Trying to swipe it away via the infinite resources of our smartphone is a temporary fix; a distraction, rather than a solution. We can fill that space with technology or – and forgive me for going all Silicon Valley-speak here – we can lean in to the occasional bouts of boredom. To understand that it is an essential part of having your regular lives curtailed; and that, perhaps, we can learn something about the value of our lives, and ourselves, through these moments of unvaried repose.
I started pondering the virtues of boredom long before the pandemic. In recent years, my waking hours have begun to feel precarious, as if stacked up like a Jenga game: children, work, a sliver of a social life and the omnipresence of technological correspondence woven throughout. One over-zealous finger and the whole lot could come tumbling down.
I felt constantly jittery about my lack of ‘thinking time’. Time to just be. I began to yearn for the boredom of my childhood – which was fostered from an early age. It was not so much that my mother encouraged boredom, so much as she refused to cater to my every whim. She used to own a small green fishing boat and, when I was little, she would inveigle me into long days of trout fishing. I’d grumble and huff as she manhandled me into an oversized waterproof, and yet these are the days that I remember fondly: my mother, meditative and silent, with her rod trailing quietly in the water; me lying on the floor of the boat, thinking, musing, pondering and planning. My mother no longer has her boat, but it lives on in my mind as a metaphor for the potential of boredom.
I do not think boredom, in itself, is a net good. But neither do I think that constantly filling what psychotherapist Adam Phillips calls ‘our vacancies of attention’ is much good, either. Boredom, when its wings are left unclipped, can segue into a glorious bout of daydreaming – and it is daydreaming, rather than 24/7 entertainment, that is essential to contentment. Some people believe that coronavirus is a karmic message from Mother Nature, warning us that the planet is in freefall. I am less sure of that, but I do hope that the Great Pause, as the actor Finn Wolfhard wonderfully refers to it, allows us to consider how many of us were careering towards ‘burnout’, which I think is more accurately described as, Trying To Do Too Much, All The Time.
This busy-boredom – fully occupied, but not always entertained – is humbling. A little bit of boredom keeps you clear-eyed about your choices; an interlude whereby you may reluctantly interrogate and ponder, rather than making knee-jerk assumptions and decisions from a prism of everyone else’s opinions. It allows us to marvel at how exceptional even the gentlest life once was: with its cinemas, barbecues and coffees with friends. I know of people who have decided to move to new areas; to change careers. For as much as the stagnancy of the pandemic has been boring, it has allowed us to reflect upon the lives we were leading – and the lives that we might want to live, on the other side.
I feel like it has offered me a reprieve from what was expected of me; an opportunity to recalibrate. And as the next stage of this pandemic dawns, and our old lives unfurl once again – ever so slowly, ever so nervously – I hope we might take those little pockets of reflective boredom with us.
‘How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?’ is out 16 July (£14.99, Hutchinson); Doing It Right, Pandora’s new podcast series about modern life, is out now.
Life After Lockdown
Life After Lockdown in Pictures - Grazia
New York, USA
The Cafe du Soleil sets up igloos outside for its diners to allow for social distancing.
Sara, who has just given birth to baby Olivia, wears a protective mask as father Angelo takes a picture of his new daughter through a glass wall.
Students exercise outside as they return to school on 15 May.
A dental hygienist wearing PPE welcomes patient at a dentist's office in Krakow on 15 May.
New York, New York, USA
Social distancing circles are used at Domino Park in Brooklyn, New York on 15 May.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Social distancing markers are displayed at a train station in Johannesburg, South Africa on 4 May.
Auckland, New Zealand
Martyn Weatherill, principal of Laingholm Primary School in Auckland, hosts an online assembly with students in their classrooms on the first day back to school on 18 May.
Bayern Munich substitutes wear protective face masks and maintain social distance in the stands during the Bundesliga match between 1. FC Union Berlin and FC Bayern Muenchen at Stadion An der Alten Foersterei on 17 May. The Bundesliga and Second Bundesliga is the first professional league to resume the season after the nationwide lockdown; all matches until the end of the season will be played behind closed doors.
Dallas, Texas, USA
A sink in a public toilet is blocked off in an attempt to promote social distancing.
An empty Waterloo station shows a sign encouraging social distancing on 18 May.
San Francisco, California, USA
A temporary tent encampment for the homeless with tents at an acceptable distance from each other is opened in San Francisco.
Markings are placed on the floor at a primary school in Berlin as primary school pupils and tenth graders began returning to school.
A sign at the entrance to the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Krakow reads, 'Do Not Enter Without A Mask' and 'Keep A Safe Distance.'
Gare de nord station in Paris has marks on the ground to show the appropriate social distance between people.
A zebra crossing sports a sign that recommends keeping two meters away from other people on the first day that Granada begins Phase 1 of progressive return to normal life on 18 May.
Beachgoers enjoy the sun and sand at Anavisos beach on 16 May as organised beaches are allowed to be reopened in Greece.
Hairdressers wash customer's hair on 2 May 2020 in Innsbruck, Austria after hair salons and barber shops reopen after a seven-week lockdown. Customers and employees must wear masks and have to keep as much distance as possible.
Tel Aviv, Israel
A young girl wearing a mask plays on the playground during the first day of school on 5 May 2020 after over a month and a half that schools were closed.
A doctor from the state health sector speaks to a federal police officer who is supervising the information to prevent contagion amid the COVID-19 pandemic at Hermosillo International Airport on 2 May 2020. Hermosillo International Airport is operating normally while taking preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Demonstrators in Venice asks for the restrictions around bars, restaurants and other commercial activities be lifted on 4 May 2020.
Shanghai Disneyland utilises 'social Distancing' queues for its reopening on 4 May 2020.
Janine Scholz and Philip Scholz are married in a wedding ceremony at the Autokino Dusseldorf drive-in cinema on 5 May 2020. A total of three couples are marrying at the drive-in with friends and family members allowed to attend in their cars.
Churchgoers arrive Frauenkirche 'Cathedral of Our Lady' cathedral for evening mass on the first day churches and other houses of worship are allowed to hold services again in Bavaria since March on 4 May 2020.
Visitors, only some of whom are wearing face masks, wait to enter the Zwinger palace complex as a poster showing Adam and Eve wearing masks hangs at the entrance on the first day the palace reopened to the public.
A commuters, wearing protective face masks, sits on a bus on 4 May 2020.
People watch the sunset at La Barceloneta Beach on 2 May 2020. In Spain, lockdown measures have continued to ease and walking with family members and outdoor exercise is now permitted from 6-10am and from 8-11pm.
Tel Aviv, Isreal
Year 3 children return to school for the fist time in over a month and a half on 5 May 2020 in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Huntington Village, New York, USA
A family receives a delivery of beer from the Six Harbors Brewery, who have trained their two golden retrievers, Buddy and Barley, to deliver beer to customers during the pandemic.
Jose Morales sanitizes buckets of golf balls at the Miami Beach Golf Club on 29 April 2020 as the city of Miami Beach partially reopens parks and facilities including golf courses, tennis courts and marinas.
Surfers prepare to enter the water at Bondi Beach on 3 May 2020. Currently, 'Surf & Go' measures are in place for weekends and there is no beach access allowed except along designated pathways to the water for surfcraft use only.
People wear protective masks while practicing dance near the Yangtze River 1 May 2020 as life returns to normal in Wuhan, China.
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Prototype clear acrylic safety shield dividers are tested at a blackjack table at the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, which is currently closed as a result of the statewide shutdown.
Gold Coast, Australia
From 2 May 2020, the Queensland government eased lockdown measures to allow people to leave their homes for recreational activities, such as motorbiking or boating, picnics, visiting national parks or going shopping for non-essential items. Social distancing must still be observed and people must stay within 50km of their main residence.
Miami Beach, Florida has partially reopened parks and facilities including golf courses, tennis courts and marinas as it begins easing lockdown restrictions.
A woman has her temperature taken upon arrival at Naples' Central Station 4 May 4 2020.
Auckland, New Zealand
As schools prepare for students up to Year 10 who can't study from home or whose parents need to return to work to return to school, a teacher write Covid-19 instructions on the white board.
People share alcohol-based hand sanitszer in South Pointe Park on 29 April 2020.
Shoppers rush into a clothing store, which has opened for the first time since the government imposed restrictions to slow the spread of coronavirus on 2 May 2020.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Restaurant Mediamatic in Amsterdam offers what they call 'corona-proof' dining.
A taxi driver tries to protect himself with a plastic shield after Thailand's lockdown was partially lifted on 3 May 2020 allowing markets, parks, barber shops and restaurants to open with proper social distancing measures.
Students eat their lunch on desks with plastic partitions as a preventive measure at Dajia Elementary School in Taipei on 29 April 2020.
A couple has their temperature taken before their wedding ceremony at Moscow's No1 Civil Registry Office on the first Sunday after Orthodox Easter.
The couple shows off their wedding rings to a phone, as currently, relatives and friends are not allowed to attend marriage ceremonies due to safety measures aimed at countering the spread of the disease.
As the lockdown ends in Italy, the government has allowed bars and restaurants to reopen exclusively for take-away food.
A kiosk worker wears a protective face mask as he speaks to a customer from inside an electronic point covered with plastic inside Kazimierz Shopping mall on 4 May 2020.
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Surin Nguyen, wearing protection gear, works on the nails of a customer at Allure Nail Bar in Atlanta, Georgia on 21 April 2020 after Governor Brian Kemp eased restrictions allowing some businesses, including hair and nail salons, to reopen in the US state of Georgia after a four-week lockdown.
Bozeman, Montana, USA
Kurt Smith wears a mask while helping a customer at the recently reopened Schnee's Boots, Shoes and Outdoors on 4 May 2020.