If our fragmented age has a single organizing principle it is that there can be no more important human pursuit than the avoidance of boredom. Laugh, cry, be outraged, argue about politics or Taylor Swift, but whatever you do make sure to fill every idle moment with something. Unlike diet, where the pursuit of satisfying our immediate desires has obvious negative consequences, reducing boredom seems unambiguously good. But there are two problems with it.
First is the form it takes, which is most often scrolling on a phone. A phone is not as good as a television for watching videos, not as immersive as nice stereo for listening to music, not as efficient as a computer for writing. It’s worse than a landline for making a phone call. The only areas in which a smartphone is superlative are availability and ease of use. The boredom we use our phones to avoid is not just the tedium of waiting for a dental appointment, but that of fifteen seconds in checkout line, a lull in conversation, a slow moment in a movie. Phones are so accessible that we reach for them before we’ve realized that nothing much is happening.
The second issue is what our phones feed us: email, messages, videos, podcasts, reels, tweets, and posts about absolutely everything and absolutely nothing. But it is the nature of digital life that all of these disparate media will conform themselves to what most interests us. The more time we spend online, the more we will see not just videos of puppies and random snippets of news, but also glimpses of people apparently living something like our ideal life. Influencers selling a particular, gaudy transience are the most obvious form of this,the photoshopped hordes who appear to spend their lives flitting from waterfalls to gyms to mountains to beaches.
But there are also more intellectual, or at least more aestheticized, versions of the dynamic. I’m thinking of the way digital life puts us close to people who say what we’d like to say, but better. There are boatloads of commentators who are all effortlessly clever, who have the perfect pithy rejoinder to the day’s politics, who move through the wilds of the internet with enviable, cosmopolitan ease. These are lifestyle influencers of a different sort.
“Okay, Garth,” you’re probably saying at this point. “Maybe that’s interesting to someone, but I don’t have all day. My one wild and precious life is wasting.”
I’ve never been crazy about the poem from which that idea comes, The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver. It’s always struck me as a bit cloying and even patronizing, the adult equivalent of telling a class of forty kindergarteners that all of them can be astronauts. After all, who has time for anything wild or precious with kids and work and nights of bad sleep stacking up on top of each other? Better to get on with it, and maybe distract ourselves with glimpses of people living the lives we wish could be ours.
But I was wrong about the poem, in a very online way. I know I’d read or heard it in its entirety at some point, but I’d forgotten about the seventeen lines that precede the famous closing couplet. I’d seen,
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
imposed over sunsets and mountain ranges dozens of times, but somehow I’d forgotten about
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Do you have any idea how incredibly, mind-numbingly bored you have to be to sit around outside long enough for a grasshopper to crawl into your hand and start eating sugar out of it? The poem is the opposite of an exhortation to frantically accumulate and curate some perfect combination of experience, opinion, and achievement. Quite the opposite; the sweeping sentiment of the closing is a celebration of the mundane. The thing to do, Oliver is saying, is simply to put down the phone and look around.
I sometimes have the fleeting experience of apprehending the world for a moment. I use the word intentionally, because it truly is a sense of having temporarily caught hold of something. It might be noticing the bark on a tree trunk or the ice starting to skin a puddle of muddy water, or it might be the feel of chopping an onion or writing a note on a piece of paper. In these moments I feel distinctly alive.
Maybe it’s unrealistic to spend an entire life floating from one everyday miracle to the next, but the fact that the strange and wondrous — or wild and precious, if you prefer — corners of the world are constantly in front of us should be an invitation we learn how to accept.