On boredom + quiet courage

When I started telling people I’d be moving to Timor to volunteer for a couple of years, a few of them said it seemed pretty brave. I shrugged them off with (faux) humility – not wanting to sound conceited – but internally, I agreed: I was petrified to leave Australia. This move was by far the scariest thing I’d contemplated in my (admittedly safe, small, white-bread) life, and one of the biggest reasons I accepted the assignment for was the sheer shame I felt imagining myself in ten years’ time saying, “Oh, I had the chance to live and work in Timor-Leste, but it sounded really scary, so I just said no.”

I’m glad I didn’t verbalise (too much) what I thought of as my own bravery in the face of that fear – because of course, very quickly after arriving hear I completely re-conceptualised what I understood bravery to be (your inner cheerleader is a little less convincing in a country where memories of a 24-year-long invasion run fresh and raw). But this week, I had that thinking pressed again, by one of the very friends who called me brave in the first place, in a reply to an email where I’d refused the word.

“Ok I have changed my mind, Sophie Raynor. You are not brave. But I admire what you’re doing all the same because stepping into a new environment and moving away from everybody for over a year is the kind of thing I couldn’t imagine myself doing (with that said, I think that whenever I’m about to go on a long trip and then when I’m there, I’m like ‘actually this is kind of easy, I could do this forever’ which kind of sounds like the position you were in when you wrote me this email 2 months ago). What I’m really trying to get at is that boredom is a kind of challenge, and I think it takes a weird kind of courage to put yourself in a situation where you are bored when the alternative is BEING BUSY AND DOING EXCITING PROJECTS IN THE METROPOLIS. For super smart high achievers like us, that’s often the default as opposed to sitting around feeling mildly useful in the middle of nowhere. But maybe this doesn’t resonate with you at all and I’m just rambling again. I enjoy rambling. I should write more. That would make me more articulate. I’ll add it to the to-do list, Sophie Raynor.”

I extract this paragraph in its entirely because in all its self-proclaimed verbosity it’s still a far neater articulation of this idea than what I could paraphrase. Boredom is a kind of challenge. For self-critical perfectionist high-achievers (g’day), it feels normal to be frantically busy, overwhelmed and exhausted. Anything less than that is middle-ground and by default, not extraordinary. Not perfect.

Confronting that doesn’t come anywhere close to the kind of character that’s been required of other people here (and that still is, daily – and I acknowledge that loudly) – but hearing these words from my friend was a lighbulb, making me realise that the things I’m finding difficult in Dili – missing out on things happening back home, being frustrated with myself for getting small things wrong, general malaise and discomfort, to name a few – are still challenging things, especially for me, who usually finds myself busy, efficient, darting between things, riding a bicycle in a skirt with a mile-long to-do list and a cheery grin. That’s normal for me; that’s factory setting.

There’s some particular kind of resilience required to plug through irritating, scabby little problems: as my friend said, a “weird kind of courage to put yourself in a situation where you are bored.”

I’ve spend 25 years avoiding boredom. I’ve moved jobs and houses and relationships and coffee orders and exercise regimes and books and career paths and favourite snack foods and TV shows and suburbs and cities and fashion trends to avoid being bored (I wore coloured tights every day as a 15-year-old wannabe emo, and once fashioned a tablecloth into a T-shirt to wear on a trip that involved a public bus and a lot of staring). I can’t remember the last time I just felt bored, and as a result, I’ve never really learnt how to be bored.

Which is why I’ll agree with my friend on this one: this move to Timor is the first time I’ve lived overseas, and it’s also the first time I’ve put myself in a position where I’m liable to boredom. In the mind of a self-critical high-achiever, that’s a big step. An act of quiet courage.

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