Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Louis CK's "Boredom" Routine Meets the "Mindful" Parent

I've never been one to look to celebrities for great wisdom, or profound opportunities to learn something about life. However, they're still people. Living on this planet. Which means they need not be ignored, or treated as all fluff and emptiness.

Skewering pop culture icons is a favorite past time of hip spiritual types these days. It's usually a different flavor from the fire and brimstone condemnations of religious conservatives, but in the end, both groups tend to display an "above it all, holier than thou" attitude. Something I'd argue derives from a false sense of separation, as well as an allegiance to some form of "transcendence" from the muck of this world.

I say all this because I have been guilty of such hip skewering. And recognize the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) superiority complex that lingered beneath those criticisms. It's a form of criticism that moves beyond examining particular people and social structures, and goes into the territory of "don't bother looking for wisdom or insight here. Because you won't find any." And by here I mean from this person, or this form of pop culture, or in such and such activity. No doubt, there are plenty of tried and true paths for humans to embark and wake up on. However, it's also the case that every last one of our paths to awakening is unique, with points of awareness and wisdom discovery coming from all sorts of unlikely places.

By now, many of you have probably seen the clip of comedian Louis CK talking about boredom with his young daughter. Specifically, in response to his daughter repeatedly saying she was bored, he says:

“I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.”

It's not exactly the response of a heartfelt, gentle parent. I don't think I'd say it exactly that way myself. In fact, I kind of wonder if some of the extra bluster there is simply Louis playing it up to get us to laugh and pay attention to how we feel about such interactions with our children.

Anyway, fellow 21st Century Yoga author Matthew Remski doesn't care much for Louis CK's humor on this one. In fact, he basically rejects the idea that CK's comments are a point of spiritual wisdom.

his now-famous admonishment that his daughter shouldn’t be allowed to be bored is not a borderline-spiritual encouragement for her to seize the day. It’s a transference of anxiety. If we’re laughing, it’s to protect ourselves, as he does, from the most difficult question a child will ask: “What should we do now?” The truth is that nobody knows. If we wanted we could let that soften us, but that softness won’t make anyone laugh.

What to make of this? Even though I'm not a parent, I have had more than enough experience with children and their questions to agree with him that questions like "What should we/I do now?" when you don't have an answer can be anxiety producing. Uncomfortable. In part, I think, because the lack of a ready made answer blows through the idea of being the "all knowing adult." Which is great in one way, because it's an instant opening for co-creation between child and adult. On the other hand, it can leave both with a sense of confusion or even heightened fear. The child thinking, "If he/she doesn't know, then what do we do? Who can help us find the answer?" The adult thinking, "I'm useless here." Or "This kid is seeing through me now." Or "How long will it be before they reject me as trustworthy or as an 'authority figure' all together?" Which eventually could lead the adult to the same question as the child: who can help us find the answer?

However, is the laughter about protection? Or is it, at least for some folks, about recognition of the mucky challenge of that situation?

After making what I would call an unfounded character assumption about Louis CK, Remski goes on to offer this:

Let’s focus instead on the fact that his answer is both untrue and ineffectual. On the untrue side, every four year-old knows that the world is great, big, and vast. And no four year-old has seen none of it. In fact, her entire being is trembling at the threshold of the all of it. The four year-old has had plenty of time to navigate her internal worlds. She knows that stories, dreams and fantasies go on forever. So yes, Louis. She understands these things, and feels much more than she understands. “I’m bored” doesn’t mean “I’m uninterested”. It means “I don’t know who I should be. I feel empty and full. I feel confused and sad. What should I bother doing?”

On the ineffectual side, the answer pretends to kindle the girl’s wonderment, but it actually burns the tenderness of her question. She’s asking a question about how to manage emptiness, and his answer is to overwhelm her with stuff. Instead of letting it be an open moment in which the parent can share in the revelation of uncertainty that the child makes new for him, Louis crams irritated gumption and panicked work-ethic down her throat, guilting her with what she already knows but was too innocent to accept, guilting her for naming a condition to which we dare not confess, guilting her for being so rude as to ask for help. We laugh because he releases the valve on our own guilt over doing the same thing.

My initial response to this is that Remski over estimates the "knowing" of a young child. Personally, I'm not convinced that every child, or even most children, fit the vision he's putting forth. It feels like an adult projection on children. The whole children are adults in small bodies kind of thing. Regardless of whether that's accurate or not, I think it's more useful to come from a place of not knowing here.

CK assumes that boredom means uninterested. Remski assumes the child knows and understands a whole lot about the world and is interested, but confused. Both are assumptions. Assuming the latter might be more expansive and helpful, but it still creates a limited story around the situation that limits the possible responses. Sometimes, children are flat out uninterested in the current situation. If you say otherwise, you've totally forgotten your own childhood.

The problem is that adults are far too prone to coming from a place of knowing in general with children. Because we're supposed to know. Because they usually expect us to know. And because our social structures reinforce the idea that the only right way to interact with children is to be the authority, the leader, the one who knows.

What I see in these pair of responses (from Louis CK and Matthew Remski) are the flip sides of the "adult as knower" coin. One is the gruff, no nonsense side and the other is the soft, tender side.

Where is not knowing in all of this? How might it look different (even just a little bit) if entered into without managed scripts?

As a side note, the feeling tone I get from Louis CK's comments is kind of hostile towards children. Whereas Remski's comments feel hostile towards adults. He goes on to speak about how adults often shift their own self criticism and doubts on to their children. Which is totally true. And yet, his commentary feels devoid of compassion for the struggles of parenting (or being an adult role model) adults face everyday. There's also a particular skewering of Louis CK that in my view seems almost a desire for us - the readership - to see him as an untrustworthy narrator. Someone we'd never look to for wisdom, and also someone who is probably a poor parent to boot.

The way I see it, the brilliance in some of Louis CK's commentary about parenting is that he deliberately unearths all the contradictory, mucky thoughts that adults feel when with children. Especially children who ask lots of questions that have no clear or ready answers. Questions we've been struggling with our entire lives. Sure, if it's true that he's saying all of this stuff to his daughter, that wouldn't be too great. However, I'm not convinced that his comedy stick is a verbatim blow by blow account of his interactions with his daughter. It feels like a compressed version of those moments when the well of energy, caring, and compassion have dried up. And no matter how much you want to be the "best" parent or role model, you just can't offer much. So, a little of that inner crap spills out. Maybe the words sound good, but the tone is standoffish or curt. Or maybe the tone is right, but the words aren't so helpful.

I agree with Remski that Louis CK only offers one side of boredom to us. However, his response to the whole thing feels like a rejection of adult struggles, and also perhaps a subtle rejection of adulthood (beyond being a mentor/parent to children) itself. He writes:

We have to let our children be bored, so they can explore safely the endless horizons of time, and softly confront the abyss. If we take their lead, we can also let ourselves be bored, but not with resignation or apathy. We can be comfortably bored with the endless Big Red Dog, the counting of spaces on board-games.

On the one hand, yes - we can totally share boredom with children. Without trying to come up with some great answer or resolution for it all. And furthermore, there has to be space for kids to get bored and not know what to do in the first place, something the hyper scheduled world we more and more seem to inhabit is failing us - all of us, children and adults alike.

And yet, boredom need not always be shared. In my view, there's a bit of the sacrifice mentality behind these words, and this article as a whole. As if an adult is always selfish or guilty of poor role modeling if they opt to not read the Big Red Dog for the 1000th time today. Or if they respond to "I'm bored" for the 50th time by saying something a little like what Louis CK did. With much younger children, there's definitely less room for this without also doing some harm, even if unintentional. But part of learning how to deal with issues like boredom involves having the space and time alone to face the unknown of it all. And also learning, little by little, that adults have lives beyond you. That you aren't the only person in their world in need of something, even if they are your parent. And that they, too, have needs, which sometimes conflict with yours.

I may be wrong in reading it this way, but Remski's commentary sounds like the flip to the opposite extreme of adult children whose parents frequently sounded like Louis CK's comedy routine. The distant, dismissive, authoritarian, gruff parent, is replaced by the soft, self sacrificing, doting, parent who idealizes their child, in large part out of fear of "damaging" them in some way or another.

Odds are I will get some flack - either written or unwritten in some reader's minds - for writing so much about this as a non-parent, but I'm convinced that both of these extremes are pretty damned common in our society, and neither is leading to more enlightened children, nor healthy, fulfilled parents and adult role model figures.


Bob said...

I was about 10 years old, as I recall, and it was a lazy Summer Saturday afternoon. By then, I was no longer interested in the Saturday morning cartoons that used to amuse me, and I had been sulking around that day, becoming increasingly frustrated with the apparent options of experience. THis was unusual, since until then I could always find stuff to occupy myself, even if it entailed just lying out in the backyard, watching the clouds drift through the blue sky. When I finally confronted my father and complained that I was bored, and that there was nothing to do, he smiled, focused his gaze intently on me, and said, "Spit in your shoe!"
The phrase seemed so astounding that my mind couldn't process it, and so fell silent. A vast universe spread out before me, beyond any sense of personal limitation. There was the tacit recognition that reality was not at all the fixed proposition which I had assumed it to be, but instead was full of confounding mystery, opened-ended, and even delightfully absurd. From that day forward, I was never bored again, and am grateful to my Dad for my first "Zen" kensho.

Nathan said...

Oh my god! What a great answer! And funny too :)

Unknown said...

My wonderful but- like all human beings- sometimes annoying son once did me the huge, immense favor of curing me forever of the urge to say "you don't get to be bored".

He is on the autism spectrum, one consequence of which is that he's very afraid of new things and of minor changes in routine. And he's also prone to depression, which frequently coexists with autism; one symptom of which is "ahedonia", a lack of pleasure in the things you usually enjoy- i.e. crushing, overwhelming boredom.

One day, when I was feeling annoyed at what seemed in that moment like his incessant whining at me that he was bored, his teachers were mean, etc, while I was struggling with the much more difficult and important adult problems of balancing working and caring for him, paying our bills, etc; I couldn't stand it anymore and I said "You know, I know things are harder for you sometimes than for other kids, but really, objectively your life so far has pretty much been a bowl of cherries". I mean, it has been, right? He has enough to eat and a roof over his head, his dad and I are pretty good parents, he's never experienced a moment of violence, and so on.

And he said, "Mom, have you ever thought that life was so meaningless that you wished you were dead?" I suddenly didn't feel so annoyed anymore and I said very gently that yeah, I had. And he said "that's how I feel all the time, so it's not fair to say my life has been easy".

He was seven years old when he said that, and he's sixteen now, and I've never once since then felt the inclination to minimize his complaints of boredom. Of course, he's not usually that down on life, thank god, but I now understand that in that moment he was truly experiencing dukkha, and that children have the capacity to experience the inherently unsatisfactory nature of conditioned phenomena, even if they can't express it quite as gracefully as Buddha did.

Now when he complains of boredom, I ask him "do you just need something new to do or is it existential boredom?" He pretty much always says it's existential boredom, and I either just hug him, commiserate that life sucks sometimes, or offer the best truth I know, which is that the only thing that brings lasting happiness is a life of altruism, which it's never to early or too late to start working on.

Nathan said...

"Now when he complains of boredom, I ask him "do you just need something new to do or is it existential boredom?"

I really appreciate this. The question you ask your son. Because it honors his experience in a way that Matthew's commentary doesn't - in my view. Nor Louis CK's last line for that manner.

Also, I actually agree with you that children "have the capacity to experience the inherently unsatisfactory nature of conditioned phenomena." No doubt they do. Maybe sometimes they're even more clear about it than adults are, because they don't have as much social junk overlaying their experience as we often do.

Thank you for sharing a bit of your experience with your son with the rest of us!

Was Once said...

I , too was once stupid enough to say to my Dad, "I'm bored!" Which he replied, "Only boring people are bored! It stuck, because I could not ask for more of his involvement in my life, it would be like asking for more pain. He was by no means boring, a manic depressive artist... so he first started my tendency to look outside of myself for happiness. I guess I should be grateful for his initial push to find some wisdom in life.