Friday, December 08, 2006

What does it mean when I am very busy, but I still feel empty?

Joe's Blog--"My Weekend"

Friday we threw an office party for Matt and he sent us all home early afterward. I think he just wanted to get out of there and party, but it worked out great for me because I had a chance to grocery shop and pay some bills before going over to Tim and Jenna’s. It was good to see everybody and I got to finally meet Tim’s brother, who was home on leave from Iraq. Good times. Saturday I went running and stopped into Starbucks for a coffee afterward. Sarah and Chelsea walked in right when I was paying for it, so we sat and talked for a while. Sarah’s going to France for a month. I’m so jealous. Anyway, we all ended up hanging out at her place until I had to be at basketball. Our team did really well, for a record of 6-2, so far.

Saturday night I saw Kirsten, which is always good. We rented a movie and ordered pizza and just stayed in. Sunday morning we went to her showing at the Stone Cold Gallery. She worked so hard on those pictures, it was nice to finally get some recognition.

I babysat my nieces for the afternoon and that was great. They’re so cute and say such funny things. They think I’m a god or something. Sunday evening I went over to Brian’s new place. It’s really nice, lots of space, lots of character. He just bought a brand new 42” wide-screen plasma TV, and we watched the game on it, played poker and had some beers. Derek was there and it was good to see him, again. It was a good group of guys there. I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

All in all, my weekend was great. It’s all great. In spite of that, I can’t understand why I still feel so empty. It’s like a void or something. WTH? I thought I got over this after college.

The above is fictional. Although based on an actual blog-post, the names, events and expressions have been changed. I have reconstructed the tone of the original post as accurately as possible.

While we each fill our lives with different people and events, Joe’s lingering feeling of emptiness in the midst of activity is something familiar to most of us, to one degree or another. We choose activities and relationships we find meaningful, because our minds and bodies cry out for purpose. But what does it mean when these things don’t deliver? Why, when I slow down or am finally silent at the end of a day, do I sense something akin to fear and not unlike sadness and a lot like loneliness, crowding in?


Anonymous said...

Imagine you're on a road trip down a long stretch of highway. There are very few exits with food and services. You pass up a few exits thinking, "I'll stop at the next one, just want to get a few more miles behind me." But soon you realize that you need to use a restroom, are running low on gas, and are extremely hungry. You can feel the gnawing in your stomach growing and begin to feel weak. Finally you see a giant billboard advertising that a restaurant and gas station are at the next exit. But instead of driving past the billboard until you reach the exit, you pull over next to the sign, get out of your car, walk over to the posts which hold the advertisement up, and just stare at it. You sit down and look at the pictures of the delicious food on the sign and imagine how good it must taste. And you never get up and leave.

That's what we often do in life. We stop at the billboards instead of moving past them to what they are pointing at.

"We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

~ C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

I have to ask myself the question constantly, "What gets me up in the morning?" Friendships, romance, entertainment, good food, financial stability are all wonderful things, but if those things are the source of my sense of self-worth and my sole purpose in life, what happens if they fall away or if they fail me? I'll not just be disappointed--I'll be in despair.

I think this is perhaps why God uses pain to speak to us. The quickest way to a heart is through a wound because it forces a person to a place of humility.

For much of my life I have lived just like "Joe," filling my time with endless parties, dinners, shallow friendships, entertainment, and hobbies. Sometimes when I find myself alone at night, in the darkness, I feel that emptiness creep in. But if the next day promises more stimulation in the form of a jam-packed schedule, I usually can dismiss that emptiness. Oh, the dark cloud is still around...but I can manage to get by. Then something brings the billboard crashing down. Poor health, a failed relationship, losing a job, friends hurting me. And I stand up, dizzy, in tears, and start actually moving towards something.

Rachael King said...

Any time we feel empty or dissatisfied, we have failed to create or find sufficient meaning in our lives. The fact that Joe is unhappy, in spite of many good things which should give meaning to his life, points to there being something amiss, whether that is a lack of something in his environment or a lack in his personality. Joe is trying to make sense of his life through his relationships and activities. We all do this, and we all should. But for Joe, what he has filled his life with is not enough.

What strikes me about “Joe’s” blog, is his insistence that things are “great” or “always good” or “a good time”, which leads me to believe he isn’t discontented or completely unfulfilled by his busy schedule full of friends, romance, activity and work. I like the billboard example anonymous gave, but what if Joe’s problem isn’t with the things themselves, but in the things being an incomplete answer to the question of human life? If I eat cheesecake and tarts and chocolate cookies and cream puffs, I may find each item quite satisfying in itself, at the time I am eating it. If these items were all I ate for weeks, I’d be rather foolish to comment, “Everything I ate tasted great—I just can’t understand why I feel so sick.”

Physical pain signals a disturbance in our physical bodies; so emotional or psychic pain should prompt us to look for a cause. Emptiness is a sort of psychic pain to which Joe has apparently applied an insufficient remedy.

In his book, “The Sickness Unto Death”, Soren Kierkegaard describes this emptiness as the despair resulting from a disconnect between body and spirit--or the finite and the infinite. We are both, and the neglect of one or the other aspect of our selves results in despair:

“Imagine a house with a basement, first floor and second floor planned so that there is or is supposed to be a social distinction between the occupants according to floor. Now, if what it means to be a human being is compared with such a house, then all too regrettably the sad and ludicrous truth about the majority of people is that in their own house they prefer to live in the basement. Every human being is a psychical-physical synthesis intended to be spirit; this is the building, but he prefers to live in the basement, that is, in the sensate categories.”

I think there is(or can be)a progression into the inner self or one’s spiritual self, which is a response to the feeling of emptiness or despair. Kierkegaard believes everyone is in some degree of despair and the journey into despair is necessary for coming out on the other side, in a place of truth. I would only suggest that when we do feel this angst or unrest, we should give attention to it and try to find what we lack, which has manifested itself in despair.

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I would only suggest that when we do feel this angst or unrest, we should give attention to it and try to find what we lack, which has manifested itself in despair.

Good advice. I personally feel that most of us, deep down, have this fundamental insecurity--a suspicion that we aren't worthy of love. And most of us do things to counteract that feeling. We surround ourselves by people of affinity--those friends who remind us of our own greatness. Alexander Smith defined love as, "...the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition." I don't think that's a very good definition of love at all, but it fairly accurately describes why most of us seek out the relationships that we do.

I think you're exactly right that Joe's problem isn't with the things themselves. It isn't that they are entirely empty or harmful. As you say, they are incomplete. There's something lacking. So we have this despair. This loneliness. This suspicion that we aren't worthy of love. That we're nefarious creatures. In various ways we seek to alleviate this lack. But our every attempt seems to fall short because, to continue the analogy, we stop at the billboard. We don't look to where it's pointing. And in some cases we end up not even aware that we're in despair. Which, if I remember correctly, Kierkegaard calls the worst kind of despair.

I think you're right that in a very profound way we have to embrace the despair and go through it in order to even be awakened enough to realize the truth and move forward.

Peter Downton said...

I think the relationship between activity and rest has become very distorted in contemporary living and culture. We talk by turns about how we work too hard and then about having too much leisure time -- we're either too busy or not busy enough. If we are busy, we wish we could be doing nothing; if we are at rest, we become 'bored'. I wonder whether this has something to do with the divorce that has appeared in our experience between work and service - the idea of offering our labour in the service of others - on the one hand, and leisure and recreation on the other - the idea that we are being restored, literally 're-created' as we rest. We seem to have moved from an other-centred, even in the latter concept of rest, to a self-focused concept. What we do with our leisure is nobody' business but our own. The only thing that is important about our work is that it be personally fulfilling. Only every now and again do we become aware ofthe emptiness and stop and wonder who we are doing it for . . .

Rachael King said...

Peter: That's an excellent observation. I was struck by Dorothy Day's juxtaposition of America's Great Depression poor with the poor of the 1960's, in her autobiography, "The Long Loneliness". She described the current poor--her book was published in 1963--as a group of increasingly ungrateful, unmotivated, often lazy people, who carried the chip of entitlement on their shoulders. By contrast, the poor of the 1930's were decent people, who took work wherever it was offered and for whatever pay, were immensely grateful for a "helping hand"(often finding a way to repay their benefactors),and who helped each other in their mutual hardship. One out of work builder donated his time and skills to a community need, spending the better part of a year erecting a church.

I don't know what caused this change. Initially, I would point to the attitudes of an affluent versus afflicted culture. The best in us tends to surface in the midst of adversity (an interesting topic in itself). But Day's comparison was between members of the same class, with presumably the same trials and lacks and needs--the only immediately perceptible variable being their period of history. That leads me to wonder if there occurred some sort of whole-culture attitude shift, which affected the poor as well as the rich and middle class.

I might add to your observation, the related one that most of us today suffer from a serious lack of gratitude. We've got our heads up our rear ends, which not only limits our mobility toward others, but makes for a pretty miry outlook, as well.