Boredom is epidemic, today. Diversions are particularly welcomed.
My wife and I regularly have breakfast on the front porch. The previous day we’d arranged sprinklers to water the front yard. As the sprinklers slowly oscillated back and forth we watched. Our heads turned from side to side, following the spray, like spectators at a tennis match. We usually chat over breakfast, but didn’t speak for several minutes, engrossed with the sprinklers. Eventually we looked at each other, laughed and I said, “We really need to get a life.”
Diversions are important to daily living. Several come to mind; healthy and unhealthy diversions, one that defies any category and some necessary for sustaining our sanity.
As frivolous as watching lawn sprinklers may seem, I consider it a healthy diversion. It’s environmentally friendly, hurts no one, takes our minds off the COVID-19 world, and for unknown reasons has a soporific effect on me like those times in Maine when I’d watch waves breaking on the rocks. I would rate bird watching as a top-of-the-line diversion. Serious birdwatchers might be offended that I regard it as a ‘diversion,’ but this is not to dismiss the practice as frivolous. It’s definitely recreation, a healthy diversion that’s fun, reduces stress, is frequently instructive and can leave its devotees refreshed.
Unhealthy diversions, while having distracting qualities, are more driven. At a dinner party, you may have had the misfortune to be seated next to a non-stop talker –– ‘motor mouths’ as they’re called. They always speak with absolute authority, never have questions and can’t listen. They pause their monologues just long enough to chew the food they’ve just taken from their plate. The respite is painfully brief. Dinner party conversation should be pleasantly diverting. This kind is unhealthy, never fun. It’s fatiguing for everyone except the principles, who, remarkably, are the more energized for their windy excursions.
I occasionally engage in a diversion that defies any category. I fidget. For no apparent reason, I get up from my chair and go to the window, look at my iPhone I’ve just put down, thumb through an old catalog I’ve seen several times or go to the fridge. I’ve learned how to manage that fidgetiness better than mindless diversion. I simply sit still with my feeling of edginess. I don’t try diverting the feeling with pointless activity, but instead watch my thoughts as they come and go, like viewing slides. Our own thoughts, when caught newly hatched, are amazing.
There is another kind of diversion. This diversion isn’t for escape, but for gaining perspective and maintaining our sanity while living in a mad house. Today, we live in a madhouse. Don’t think so? Consider this –– a typical news item we might read.
“Sinclair Broadcast Group recently published an online interview with a conspiracy theorist who claimed that Dr. Anthony Fauci created the coronavirus using monkey cells.”
Fox news runs “ideas that scientists consider false or ideas that question the seriousness of the virus.”
Breitbart claims that “masks were unnecessary and that the drug, hydroxychloroquine, could now cure the virus.”
What are we to make of such mindless claims; what kind of people make them up?
Here is where we need a special kind of diversion, not for escape but to keep our sanity while others around us are losing theirs. This kind of diversion involves drawing back from the madness for a while to ponder the great spiritual myths of history. Myths are not factual accounts but stories that reveal what is always true.
There are religious myths that shed light on today’s tragic suffering –– racism, the coronavirus, and economic disaster including all the posturing and ignorance that has compounded it? The biblical epic of Job provides a broad perspective.
The story tells us that Job is a good and god-fearing man, just and generous. He is suddenly stricken with a terrible sickness. Then his house burns down, his children are killed, his cattle stolen; in a brief time, Job has lost everything. While he is writhing in pain he can think of nothing he’s done that would have caused him so much tragedy. He is totally bewildered and in constant torment. What’s happened to him makes no sense at all. Three friends come to comfort him, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar.
All three confidently tell Job why he has been visited with so much tragedy. Eliphaz insists that if Job was such an upright man, as he claims, god would never have afflicted him. Job’s suffering is deserved because he thinks he’s more righteous than he really is.
Bildad tells Job that there has to be some reason for the tragedy and suggests it must be that some of his children sinned and that had to have been the cause.
Zophar is pretty much of the same mind as the others, but he offers this formula to settle the matter: he recommends that Job just tell God what a terrible sinner he really is, repent and say he’s sorry and God will restore him to his former bliss… with perks.
Job will have none of it. Job knows these theories are insane. He is not a haughty man by any means, but he has integrity. He knows for certain that he has no idea why all this happened to him nor do his friends’ conspiracy theories. Job finds them empty and pompous, like we react to sound bites. Job knows that he does not know. This is humility. Job also knows that his friends don’t know anything either. That’s wisdom. His friends cling to their conspiracy theories. By so doing, they create the illusion they actually know something. For some, creating such an illusion is habitual.
I take comfort from the wisdom of Job as I try to negotiate this mad world of glib sound bites and relentless doublespeak. Job teaches me to trust those who can say they do not know why things happen as they do, and that that’s ok. It teaches me not to trust those who offer answers to matters of which they know nothing. But best of all, it assures me that who those who feel safe enough to tell me they don’t know, when they tell me what they do know, I can trust it.
Reading Job again, offers me the kind of diversion that helps me stay focused and sane in a mad world.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.