Alone: Boredom and Solitude in a Time of Confinement

March 19, 2020 Updated: March 19, 2020

Recently, a friend brought to my attention a remark from a young woman forced by the coronavirus outbreak to work at home: “I think I’m going to die of boredom more than anything else.”

The woman added that she struggles with a lack of structure when removed from the workplace.

Boredom and solitude: here, I thought, is an ideal topic for me to address.

Days Alone

On any typical day, I spend about 14 of my 17 waking hours by myself at home. Once a day, I drive into town to write or read at the coffee shop or the public library, as much to hear the humming of voices as for the pleasure of working in a different place. Often, too, on the way home I’ll stop at the grocery store. On Sunday, I go to church for Mass.

Otherwise, I spend the great bulk of my time alone and at home. I don’t own a television, and I rarely listen to music. Occasionally, I’ll spend a little time on YouTube, watching clips from movies I love. 

The rest is silence.

But I am rarely bored.

Before exploring some ways to fight boredom, let’s look first at boredom itself.

Elements of Boredom

When I used to teach seminars of homeschoolers history, Latin, literature, and composition, I would tell my students that the phrase “I’m bored” was verboten in my classroom. They were to regard bored as an obscenity.

“Look,” I’d tell them, “here we are on this tiny planet swirling through space and surrounded by miracles and mysteries in everything, from grass and trees to the thoughts and emotions of our fellow human beings, and you’re bored? You can be bored—I can’t prevent that—but you can’t say it here. If you must express boredom, you can say ‘Mr. Minick, today I am filled with ennui.’ Just don’t use the words bored, boring, or boredom.”

Of course, banishing the word doesn’t banish the sensation. Boredom is real, and most of us do everything possible to battle it. When a dog gets bored, he lies down and takes a nap; when we get bored, we flip through our electronic gadgets, call friends, or post messages on Facebook, all the while looking for external diversions. 

In his online article “This column will change your life: just sit and think,” Oliver Burkeman points out that most of us actually find it painful to sit for more than a few minutes without distraction and just think. We quickly become bored. He quotes a number of studies on this subject, including one in which 42 people had to choose between sitting and doing nothing or giving themselves mild electrical shocks. Two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women chose the juice.

5 Tips for Fighting Ennui

But we don’t need to stick our finger into a socket to fight off boredom. Here in no particular order are just a few ideas to try if you are confined to quarters:

• Make a to-do list. This will add structure to your day and brings the satisfaction of marking through a task when done. Many mornings when I draw up such a list I find my day becomes much more productive.

• Break up the time. If you’re working at home, as I do, don’t sit for eight hours at your desk banging away on a laptop or other device. Work an hour or two, take a break (see below), and then go back to work. Unless you have a project deadline, you’re not on the clock anymore; you don’t have to get the work done all at once or by a certain time. 

• Tackle those household tasks you’ve avoided. Stop procrastinating, crank up some music, and deep clean that refrigerator. Go through that overstuffed closet and get rid of those clothes and shoes you never wear. Scrub down the bathroom.

• Write letters to friends and family members. Because of a New Year’s resolution I made here in an Epoch Times article, I have for the last three months sent letters to two of my grandchildren every week. (I have lots of grandchildren.) Letters are rare these days, having been replaced by email and texts, but when they arrive, they can make the hearts of adults and children sing with pleasure. 

• Exercise. If you’re under quarantine and can’t leave your home, Google “exercise videos” on YouTube, and you’ll find dozens of choices. If you are permitted to go outside, enjoy a walk and some fresh air. 

And 5 More

• If family members or friends are a part of your confinement, you have a grand opportunity to deepen those relationships. Play some board games. Give charades a shot. Pick a time in the evening, brew up some tea or hot chocolate, and enjoy some sessions reading books aloud to one another.

• Take a few minutes to step outside or open a window, and suck in a deep lungful of air. Look at the clouds, listen to the birds, or if you live in a city, just savor the sounds of the street. These outdoor visits provide a change of pace and relaxation, and are anything but boring.

• Embrace your condition. On YouTube, look for “The Omega Man My Favorite Scene,” and you’ll find Charlton Heston playing a man who knows how to fight loneliness and boredom. Believing himself to be the last human being alive after a global pandemic, in this scene Heston dresses like a French nobleman, pours himself a glass of wine, and plays chess while talking to a statue of Julius Caesar. (Talking to yourself is natural when you are alone for prolonged periods of time. Believe me, I know.)

• Try tackling some new venture. You’ll find dozens of courses offered online in everything from photography to drawing, from learning Italian to exploring the ruins of Italy’s Pompeii. By way of the internet, you can travel to unknown lands, gain instruction in 100 different fields, and have some fun on the way.

• Go easy on yourself. Most of us lead harried lives, working demanding jobs, running from one commitment to another, winding up exhausted by day’s end. Look at your confinement as a time to pamper yourself a bit, to take stock as to who you are and what you do, to seek out simple pleasures.

A Hidden Treasure

Philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal famously wrote: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” His dictum seems a bit broad—I can think of many other problems than that inability—but Pascal does make a point. If we can find a way to enjoy being alone, if we can subject ourselves to the rigors of solitude, away from the whirl and whir of modern life, and find pleasure in our confinement, we may discover a buried treasure:

A richer sense of ourselves. 

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.