Emptiness and terror

When you take away all obligation, what are you left with? Think of a recent retiree. Or of someone who has been made redundant and is now struggling to find a job. Their circumstances differ in all but one aspect: they both have more time than they know what to do with. They have less obligations, less commitments, less things to take up their days.

The human animal likes to do. We like to be in motion. We like to move forward, and if not forward, at least side to side. We like to be busy, to feel needed, to feel wanted, to load our actions with significance, either real or imagined. So when we take away all obligations and are left with nothing but emptiness, we panic.

Confronting this void of emptiness is unbearable. Without purpose, without an objective, we flounder. We begin a spiral of self-talk that takes us down into the world of the depressed and the destructive. And the only thing that can bring us out of that wicked descent is action. Objective. Purpose. Obligation. Commitment. Give us those things and we can recover. Give us a hit of the drug of action and we can relax again.

Think about it. When was the last time you woke up and had nothing to do? Nowhere to be, no-one to meet. And when was the last time you left a day like that deliberately empty? If we find ourselves with an empty day, we try to fill it. We call people up and agree to meet them. We remind ourselves of neglected duties and jobs and smash through them. We find something to take up the space.

It’s as if, through our constant motion, we are trying to get away from something. Trying to stay ahead of some terror or ugly truth that only reveals itself when we stop. When we pause and are still. So to avoid confronting it, we keep moving. But this void we flee from loves to chase as much as we love to run. As we sprint away, it stays just out of reach, just behind us. Close enough to nip at our heels, but not near enough to fasten it’s jaws around our legs. Teasing us, playing with us.

It reminds me of our family’s dog. I once took him round a friend’s house. Now, usually, when we’re out on a walk and he sees a cat, he goes mental and gives chase. He never gets anywhere near—dogs aren’t the ablest of hunters—but he always tries really hard. Well, this friend had a cat in the house. And our dog sensed it as he walked into the kitchen. He went for the cat as soon as he saw it. Can you guess what happened? The cat, rather than fleeing, stayed still. Our dog screeched to a stop in front of it, baring his teeth and growling. The cat sat there, unperturbed, then took a lazy swipe at our dog. Our dog lost interest after that. He likes to chase. He’s not so interested in making the catch.

What if we were like that cat and stayed still? What if we didn’t fear what we would find amongst the emptiness? What if we feared unnecessary action as much as we feared empty space? What if, rather than trying to be and look busy in order to be and look important, we were deliberately un-busy? I suspect that the ugly truths that emptiness forces us to confront wouldn’t be so ugly. Maybe they’d be beautiful.