You see them more and more on the evening news: people out en masse, partying in crowded, recently opened (or illegally opened) bars. Some have just come from rallies where they gathered around Patrick Henry’s immortal soundbite, “Give me Liberty, or give me Death!” You can almost hear the excess capitalization as they ignore the fact that Liberty and Death are not mutually exclusive. In a pandemic, they can be correlative, if not causative.
But I understand where they’re coming from. Boredom. At least, that’s what most seem to say on camera. “I’ve just got to get out of the house!” One day blurs into the next, giving us the new word “Blursday.” A meme shows a generic calendar with each column headed by the same word. “Day.”
Our brains thrive on novelty. The first bite of our favorite foods can cause our eyelids to flutter shut and our eyes to roll back in transient ecstasy. A month later, you’ll remember that first bite, but you won’t remember the ninth or tenth by the end of the meal.
Savoring that first bite can seem to take as long as the rest of the meal. That’s because our brains have many clocks to keep track of time. None of these brain clocks have hour hands. They measure time in fractions of a day or fractions of a second. There’s nothing really in between.
We experience that first bite in what neurologists call “prospective time.” While we’re looking forward to it and experiencing it, our brains measure time in fractions of a second. But the rest of the meal doesn’t get as much attention as that first bite. Rather than form new memories of each bite, our brains overwrite the same memory pattern over and over again. We don’t experience eating the rest of the meal so much as remember it later in “retrospective time.”
The same thing happens all the time. We experience new things in prospective time, but repetitive actions blur into retrospective time. We tend to live in prospective time where the length a pause in conversation can have real meaning. We may have only a split second to react when we see a snake while hiking through the fields. Is it a rat snake or a rattlesnake? Boom! We decide. That’s why time drags on forever when we’re bored. Each tick of the clock may take a week. But when we look back at a month of boredom, it seems to have slipped by in a blink as each day blurs into the one before.
Now put yourself in a different place. What if you weren’t “stuck at home” because of a government order? (An order that is being gradually relaxed as I write this.) What if you couldn’t leave home because your body was unable to take you outside? What if you were stuck at home—maybe even confined to your bed—for the foreseeable future? For the rest of your life? Your mind would turn the seconds into minutes and the minutes into hours. But it would also turn the months into days and the years into weeks.
Many people are in this unenviable situation because of injury, disease, or age. Since 1891, these people have been called “shut-ins” or, more kindly, “homebound.” Shelter in Place orders have given all of us the opportunity to experience their reality. The difference is we can escape to protest or to deal with essential tasks. Even when the last Shelter in Place order is lifted, the homebound will remain…well, shut in.
One of the services we provide at Hearts, Homes, and Hands is to help the homebound deal with their persistent reality.
Even though it seems like it wouldn’t work, one of the best things you can do to fight isolation and boredom is to keep to your normal schedule as much as you can. Go to bed and wake up at the same time as before COVID. Prepare your meals and eat them when you normally would. Exercise on your regular schedule even if it means jogging around the living room or lifting your kids instead of weights. If you can’t go to work, set aside some time to learn new things, to write letters, or to play games—anything to create new experiences for your brain to look forward to.
But the most important thing to schedule is downtime. Set aside time to do nothing. That’s right. Make time to do nothing at all. Force your brain to be bored so it looks forward to and enjoys the experiences it can have. Contrast real boredom with routine, and most of us will really appreciate being able to focus on and savor that first bite of activity—whatever it is.