Feeling The Void
Or, how life is often too much and not enough
At first, there is nothing, the void of creation. Then we build this up into something. Until we reach a point where life seems either futile or overflows with needs. It always seems to clank one way then the other, until the only way out seems to withdraw. Too much and not enough.
And yet, at the heart of it, we pick, we chose, we give it shape. We justify, prioritise and act. We give significance to our needs. It may be partly genetics, education, trauma, culture, revelation, … and, still, it is accreted choices.
How we should balance these priorities, these needs, these choices, how we should actually live our life, is the essence of many philosophies. Up to how to deal with “that feeling of alienation from our own life”. Nature does abhor emptiness, we can verify this any time by experimenting with artificial vacuum. The Void is to be resisted. We need to fill it. With what then? Life as a time sink to be played every day, a grind of proofs of achievements, or some higher purpose?
At the end, we will have lived “a full life”. Or not. A worthy, meaningful life? Or a successful one? Maybe a happy one? Probably a bit of all three. Of course, each of these, be it worth, success and happiness, depend on our own personal definitions. It depends on how we see the Cosmic Judge we may meet at the end of the Light tunnel. This is anyway how we fill our life. We give each of these dimensions hierarchies, rankings and priorities, but, still, these are our own choices.
So, we need to deconstruct the layers to start revealing the undercoat of our personal mental health. Peeling off and analysing how we literally fill our time, the choices, priorities and balance we built on the original blank canvas of our own life. However lofty or mundane, it is just how we live, how we deal with the void – whether we call it emptiness, boredom or apathy.
This is my canvas.
Some of it is high purposes; they give life a sense. Like saving souls or whales. Some of it is tokens of achievement; they track our progression in life. Like collecting cars or grandkids. Some sound as empty as what they fill; they are here in-between significance and progression. Like meditating. Or getting drunk.
Significance, progression and oblivion.
All three co-exist, all three are consubstantial to my life, an intimately personal mix. These 3 layers shape the ever-shifting balance of our needs. This is just how we fill our void.
Life as we experience it
The sense of emptiness is everywhere in our life.
Usually, we record it as a negative. We regret the emptiness. Life feels so empty. We experience it to different extents: I am very happy with my career and family life, but my spiritual life feels empty. Up to an overwhelming absence, and depression: nothing makes sense, there is no real point in it.
But emptiness can also be a positive experience. Sitting on the balcony, looking over a luscious landscape, soaking in the sun. Emptiness as an experience, a pleasure. Or that temporary feeling of elation after reaching the recognition you worked so long for.
But the Void is neutral: stepping down from the stage after a successful speech, or the morning after getting the award you wanted so badly. That confusing moment when you know you should feel complete, and you feel empty.
Then you just start buying a car, shoes, anything to give your emptiness something to fill it with. And the feeling of absence just gets deeper…
This is what we try to address and where the idea of this article came from.
– SIGNIFICANCE –
We try and give life significance
From the loftiest ideals to factual beliefs, we look for logics, explanations, rationalisations to give life, and ourselves at the same time, significance. It seems just human. We search for higher narratives, more logical sequences, causes and, possibly, consequences. Life can feel empty without it. It fills what we perceive as a void with purpose. We stare, unblinking, at it.
And so, we fill the primordial emptiness we inherit with needs. This absolute significance can be saving our soul or others, rescuing the planet, or just the whales, believing in a creator, or on the contrary not believing,… These higher imperatives end up defining us, in our own eyes or the eyes of others.
These sets of purposes may not entirely be a personal choice, dictated by our personal circumstances, but we can always dial up and down their intensity. We can believe, but not preach. We can listen to the science, yet acknowledge that it is often still work in progress by definition.
Our basic understanding is that an empty life is a failed life
It is not only cultural, it is something we hear across all languages. Our default human understanding seems to be that an empty life is a failed life. There is no point to it. No goal, no progression, just a mind numbing grind.
Cautionary tales about inactivity and indolence are as old as recorded storytelling. It seems one of these essential threats to humanity. Wastefulness, one of the oldest unworthiness. Idleness can be accepted, but only if in pursuit of a significant public service. Hence monks, nuns, hermits have a collective purpose. Without it, they would just be drifters and outcasts.
A “full” life is by definition the opposite of an empty one. Life must be full, because Death, as we know it, is the permanent absence. Unsurprisingly, that is what we say as eulogy at funerals: he/she lived a full life.
To our senses and intelligence, Death is Void. An empty life is not only bad, it is abhorrent to life itself.
Life, from nothing into something, but never everything
So we think we are able to define life by what it should not be: empty. Life should not be “nothing”. It should be better than the absence of [insert whatever here].
How to feel fully satisfied then?
By right, the opposite of nothing is … everything. As an opposite of Death, Life should be “everything”. But, can we even grasp what “everything” means? Can we give it a positive definition, or at least give it some material example? Not really.
This is true for Nothing, and true for Everything. We hit a snag when we try to define either of the two absolutes in our life, both ultimate’s in our existence. And, on the other hand, it seems easier to define “something”: life is a journey, life is fun, life is work… Something lies in-between Nothing and Everything. Somehow.
We often think we can outline The Void, the absolute nothing. That’s the success of Existentialist philosophy in accepting that Nothing is an overwhelming feeling at the opposite of Everything. It remains an elusive concept, because it can only be experienced in our life in bits and defined by proxies, unsatisfactory themselves. Everything and Nothing can only be experienced in fragments. We only have glimpses of both. However central they are to our lives, they can only be conceptualised.
Think about how long it took to create the mathematical zero. 7000 years at the latest estimate? The last 2% of the chronology of humanity. And yet, zero is not “nothing”, it is something: a point of origin.
Let’s bring it closer to home. You wait in the pub for a friend to have a drink. He/she is very late. You get that sinking feeling. If you already had a bad day, it may just trigger darker thoughts and feelings of emptiness. That is an updated, possibly anglicised, version of the classical Existentialist parable of Jean Paul Sartre. The emptiness comes from the sum of the absences, whether actual and potential, the things missing. But diving deeper, defining the absolute Nothing by positives, not fragmentary absences? More difficult.
This is how saying something as mundane as “he lived a full life” gives us a glimpse of metaphysical and philosophical questions. However little it may drive our conscious life. We can park these concepts or put them at the centre of how we fill life’s void.
Life is a continuous transition between an origin point we can’t know and an end we can only guess
We cannot define Nothing or Everything. We simply won’t experience it in our life.
After our actual death, someone may say the classic: ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Out of nothing back to nothing. At least until we die, we will only experience death through others. There we will already be dead when pronounced dead. Hopefully. We only experience birth through others too. Both are unknowable. Like Nothing and Everything, birth and death will essentially remain mysteries all our life. They are the two original absolutes we will come across. Trying to crack their existence, their meaning, seems at least logical. How could they not give the ultimate sense to life? How could they not be the core drivers, the most urgent imperatives?
Birth and death are significance.
It also means that our only actual experience are moments of transition: from something into something else. On the material reality of it, our life is not the opposite of death, but a timeline between birth and death. A Something out of Nothing into Everything maybe, or a Something between Nothing and Nothing. Maybe a Something between Everything and Everything? All combinations of imperatives. Core drivers are possible, and we are certain of none, except with an act of faith. That is what belief is. An act of faith beyond logics and experience, sometimes on the sole basis of glimpses of personal experience.
This is maybe why magic is so fascinating. We would love to see spontaneous generation, or something created out of nothing. Maybe sadly, we humans only witness transitions states and struggle to define origin points, not to say ending points.
So, we look for absolute significance but can only experience transition
We spend our life listing what we can measure, feel and experience. And just like that we are filling the void.
We think and dream in absolutes but live in relatives. In Something. In-Between. When it seems possible to give Something an approximate shape, it just keeps on blurring out of focus. These relatives, these “something in-betweens” are transitory, and yet just as fundamental as the absolutes, Nothing and Everything. Everything could be an absolute Something. But then it would have to be all the Somethings. It would have to be all causes, all consequences or the narrative imperatives.
And so we give our life significance in absolute goals, in absolute somethings, which will themselves be limited by our very own life and limited life span.
As the frustration may come of these partial answers, we may be tempted to pile on significance layers on top of each other. What better way to blank out the feeling of emptiness, than to have layers upon layers of significant “stuff”? Be it saving souls or whales, believing or not believing, these are at our human level just grades of intensity in higher purposes we chose of our life.
What we experience are always works in progress, and the demiurgic moment of creation always eludes us. So the logical complement to these conceptual levels is to anchor our reality in measurable tokens, if only to give this search for significance some material reality.
– PROGRESSION –
We fill some of the void in our life with what is actually gamification
What do we count with birthdays? One year older or one year less to live. Both are an absolute truth. Yet, despite this rather obvious duality, birthdays remains one of the most celebrated social conventions.
It feels natural, as we are often compelled to collect markers of social, cultural, personal achievement. We collect and show off cars, clothes, houses, titles, pets, diets,… We use these tokens as a memento of success, achievement or just a chronological marker. They are all progression tokens, progression markers. We come from here and go there.
Sometimes we make these tokens an end in themselves. These markers can even lose entirely their original significance. Then it becomes one of the void activities to fill our void.
If our life is the period between birth and death, a something between nothing and everything, measuring progression seem oddly logical. Measuring progression gives some measurable, hence seemingly rational anchor to that life. It is neither good nor bad in itself, it is just something we do. Greed is only an extreme of this natural reaction, the hoarding of certificates of achievement. It could even be collecting tokens for a higher significance: I saved X souls today. Actually, that was something commercialised by the Catholic church: Indulgences.
We naturally create progression markers for everything
All cultures, all societies have their own ways of recognising achievements, stages, passage of time. We all have our own as well. Sometimes they are the same, sometimes not. We sometimes define our entire life by them.
Past 60 birthdays, you may get some token of recognition that you are a “senior” citizen. You may get a purple card that lets you use public transport free of charge. Your work title may get you in a country club, or not. Driving a specific brand of car puts you in rather well-defined groups of people sharing the same age, aspirations, and probably wealth. Depending on where you live, it could be the size of your family that signifies success or failure, both social and financial.
But it is not only material tokens. It can be experiences, social achievements, fulfilling aspirations: phone numbers, off-hours access, golf captaincies, summits conquered… Each marks a progression stage we attach a personal value to. There always is a palette for us to choose from. A palette proposed to us by society. The choice is ours, the menu much less, if at all.
Like higher significances, we can dial these progression markers to different intensities. We can refuse them, collect or hoard them, but they are a common human language. Squirrelling them away seems even a defining trait of our century.
But, whatever we think of them, these tokens mark our journey through life. For us personally, as well for the specific target audience we live among.
Accumulating achievement tokens does not even have to be materialistic
Each of us has been imprinted, or chose, our own individual set of achievement tokens. But getting them fills up our primordial void and gives us a sense of progression. How would you define a “full” life if there would not be a mention, however flitting, of kids, grandkids, family and friends, like a notch on your social belt?
We can have a lot of big tokens. And small ones. It does not matter either. Achievement tokens could be millions of dollars, or two tomato plants on a window sill. It all depends on how we personally relate it to our wider environment. That is entirely and only individually relevant.
They are our own personal success points. We often highlight that achievement tokens do not give us individual worthiness, yet, they are worth being chased. Why else would it be so important how many people attend your funeral? You won’t be there to count, so it is likely an external memento. Whether you prepare for it, crave it, or just don’t care, it talks about the life you lived.
More and more tokens to fill the void – gamification and social media
Chasing markers can become an end in itself. By themselves, these markers are just logical, totally neutral. We allocate significance by collecting them. Either as memento or as an end in itself. But, by collecting them, they can potentially give shape to our void. Again, it is not in itself a negative, nor a judgement, nor even a despondent remark.
If we do not carefully assess the tokens we collect, they take a life of their own as they create great fulfilling narratives by themselves. They fill life’s void itself.
And its only starting. Techs will soon quantify anything and everything, until our life will just be a series of statistics. How many kilometers did you run today? At what heart-rate? And so, tomorrow, our beloved benevolent AI will let us know how much our coronaries eroded, our heart aged, and, how many hours of life we may have lost or won. I know that because it already exists. Today. How much more can our life be gamified?
China “social credit points” are nothing more than a tangible digitalisation of life. Some seemed worried that online life was used to define bank rating for credit. It seems to me simply a deeper algorithm than any pen and paper bank uses today, with a depth they only dream of, but simply proxy. Social credit tracks how we fill life’s void, because it can, but also because we volunteer the information anyway. And why? Mostly we fill our life with sets of tokens that feed some algorithm or other. Whether you call it socialising by subscribing to LOLcats on Facebook or social credit points on WeChat, algorithm or gossip, it sounds a pretty natural human activity.
Building our own narrative by filling the void with counters
Regardless of what we collect, we can always rationalise or construct wise theories on why we need them. Or not. Whether chasing them is a legitimate purpose. Or not. Whether they are good or bad, ultimately. That is a value judgement you are always free to make. It will never prevent us from gathering mementoes of progression.
Truth is simply that tokens create great narratives.
Collecting “stuff” is possibly the most alluring way of filling the emptiness and boredom, if not the easiest. A self-sustained significance. It gives our lives a veneer that feels so logical that it makes the very possibility that we live in a game materially believable. Consciously or not, we live in a heavily gamified social environment.
Even when we refuse to participate, we are still spectators. Even not having tokens is itself a narrative.
And still, we all feel sometimes the burden of significance, purpose or narratives, and we would rather fill the void by opting out.
– OBLIVION –
We look for significance, achievement … and oblivion
With oblivion, we look for a temporary withdrawal from life. As an end in itself, or to suspend the search for significance and achievements we set our selves. A Nothing against the Everything or Something we chase.
We are in an era where feeling “on edge” is a common problem. Always on the brink of tipping over into “Busyness”, a false state of activity described by Kierkegaard. The risk is to live our gamified life as a time sink, an artificial frenzy replacing any meaningful activity.
Oblivion is a time-out in our quest for a Full Life. We can meditate, read, create, drink, smoke, eat or have sex. We do that to recover, build up energy for the grinds to come, create mind space. Or just for its own sake.
As the opposite of a Full Life, seeking oblivion is often demonised
Tuning out is as old as humankind, and always a conundrum for our societies. Is it a controversial loss of time or a due reward? How does it match with living a Full Life?
We always made some space in any society for dedicated classes seeking reprieve from the standard social narrative, from the daily trudge. It basically means that, as a society, we came to agree that these occupations render some form of absolute significance. These are priests, shamen, philosophers, artists. Time-out, oblivion has its social justification as a form of un-time, contemplation of the void.
But, if we agree to contain socially oblivion to a few enlightened classes, the controversy is with the tools to reach that. We use a mid-way solution and socialise drinks, smokes, chemicals in ceremonies. We formalise the occasion, and carve out some space for oblivion in our linear social lives. It is imbued with purpose, significance, or we wrap it up as such. Institutionalised oblivion grease the social wheels. Which wedding ceremony anywhere does not justify some time off, gatherings and some form of party, music, dance…. And inordinately large amount of food, drinks, …
If not for this type of socialising, why else would we have invented beer so long ago as a pre-dosed reliable oblivion?
This means that we should logically expect some form of social control. It is logical that all cultures and religions addressed alcohol, drugs, but also meditation, art. It recognises both their potential value and the risks they represent to society. Using any of these tools, we step out of life itself, and so we fill the Void.
But humanity is what it is. So, however much we put a frame around it, won’t we all have our very own very logical and justifiable transgression? Losing ourselves into one or the other, beyond the expected moderation? The overwhelming evidence is that this happened everywhere at all times, even if it was only an aspiration.
Seeking oblivion has its own risks, and enough controversies for us to often keep it on the margins when we map how to fill our life.
Filling our void with oblivion is a logical, but risky, alternative
Seeking a time-out is one thing, staring into the void another.
“Addiction” is a relatively new concept, but it could be used for any type of activity looking for oblivion. The recognised risk is dependency, compulsion. We ultimately lose control over our life. It may be physical and health risks, it may be mental health or mind control.
It is clear that there is arguably social, political or religious agendas in condemnations or even warnings, but the denunciation goes often much deeper than that. In abusing the search for oblivion, we risk pre-empting any other way to fill our life. On the other hand, if we do not abuse it, forbidding or restricting the search for oblivion does not feel justified.
We may not be socially very productive, it may not lead to any worthiness, but is it the Devil itself, tempting us out of the significance in our life? We recognise easily enough that the logical alternative to alcohol or drugs is spirituality … Significance. We just try and swap one imperative, one core driver, with another. Just check the AA models across the world. No wonder it can work. It is exchanging ways to fill life’s void.
The risk in that, is that we have to pick and chose the relevant significance we want to swap oblivion with. Which means a risk of social engineering.
Oblivion and social engineering
Some oblivion is good: meditating, running, painting,… Losing ourselves is acceptable if we can recognise the goal. As long as we can link that emptiness to significance. The rest is just destructive. It must be rejected. Alcohol, drugs are just artificial paradises, “false happiness”. That is true only if you believe that Life is a self-sufficient, self-explanatory wonder. Else, it is denying we sometimes need to take a rest from life.
Even when the forms of oblivion are acceptable. Take artists: institutionalised, often in both meanings, or living forever on the margins of societies, switching between parallel lifelines. Take meditating: open to everyone, as long as you have the predisposition. Not everyone can reach emptiness by himself. For us, standard template human, taking time off life means parties, sex, alcohol, drugs… in combination, or at least some of it.
The price we pay socially to balance the pressure of life’s gamification. Our life.
And yet, our natural social reflex seems to try and ban from our lives oblivion. There is always more than a little social engineering in the demonisation of sex, drugs, alcohol. It is damnation of the body, the mind and.. the soul.
Abuse creates physical and mental issues. It enslaves, it cripples, it kills.
But, even in the most factual health warning, there is an unspoken template of “the normal way to die”. As if there would be a ranking of socially acceptable ways to die. There is a global list of causes of death, published by the WHO. The most common way to die is heart disease or heart attack. Then lung/respiratory diseases. Lung or liver cancers, other diseases associated with looking for a time out seem at best much further down the top 10 list. The only one true, modern, death that would pop out is dementia, Alzheimer, and assorted. Losing our identity, slowly rotting away, pissing our pants. So much better that we can make it 30% longer than before. So much better than… say…a heart attack?
“Smoking Kills”. Strange, humankind did not disappear in the 1950s. Yet we accept it without blinking. But I digress.
It is futile to deny humanity’s basic need for oblivion
We know however that the fight against any type of escapism, whether it is alcohol, drugs, alchemy, heavy metal, food, meditation, poetry or DnD, is as old as society itself. Together with Haley’s Comet return, it is probably the most predictable cycle of social, religious or political crusade.
We did not find any graffiti of it in Pompei, but a Roman anti-alcohol society is bound to have existed. The Bible remains ambivalent: alcohol distracts you from your duty to god (Lev 10:8). England in the XVIIth century clamped on gin with a success we can easily measure every day. France banned absinthe for the same social reformation reasons. And the US can be trusted to have fostered the Teetotallers and come up with the “Prohibition”. And then the “War on Drugs”. None of it seems much of a success. And yet we were so enthusiastic in the XIXth and early XXth about opium, cocaine, tobacco, as songs and literature prove! Methamphetamine was invented to keep pilots sharp during WWII.
We are ready to take the risks, because sidestepping life is a natural, logical, activity. And so all of these bans have been and will remain failures. We understand intimately the price to pay for our choices without external judgement, so, in case, just provide the factual risks, within your context, as you see them.
We can even dissolve ourselves in significance or gamification
Displacement activities to blank out life are not limited to drugs or alcohol. Nor are these without better or less risk either.
We can lose ourselves collecting achievement tokens, substituting progression for external recognition. The tokens collected become the goal in itself.
We can totally dilute ourselves into an absolute significance. The higher purpose obliterates our individuality.
Take sports. For millennia people are living through their team. The Reds and the Blues exist for centuries: it all did not start with Liverpool vs Manchester City. It exists at least since the Roman chariot races. Sports clubs as religions. There is, or at least was, some of that in politics. We have that today with social media. Influencers create devoted, unquestioning fans, who live their life through the likes, ticks, reposts. Addiction.
Talk about desperation to fill the void! Take the risk, allow transparent choices or accept that life may go wrong, call the means and tools dangerous psychological crutches if you must. But it all seem quite natural and logical ways to fill the Void.
Taking a time-out from life is as understandable as any creed or ambitions to alleviate the emptiness. As long as exercising one’s freedom does not limit the one of others,…
– CONCLUSION –
Void is not opposite to, but part of, or consubstantial to life
Life is often defined in binary terms. This or that. And so we make some pairings seem irreconcilable. An alcoholic CEO? An ambitious Saint? A meditating trader? So improbable that they seem taken out of some movie. Made-up persona. But then this is the way we live. These are real people we meet. It is so built into us that we cannot accept that these contradictory stereotypes can exist and function. And so we often cannot believe in ourselves when we seem walking, talking, contradictions.
Yet, none of these traits are mutually exclusive. They belong to different ways we fill our void. The combinations of these traits may be unexpected, but they are not inconceivable as we fill our lives with absolute significance, progression mementos as well as ways to step aside. They are all genuinely consubstantial to our very nature.
The 3 pursuits fill our void. Each has its own function. They give our life sense overall: significance, progression and oblivion. They give worthiness, success and happiness. As our life experience grows, we layer, rank, prioritise and re-balance them whenever life seems too much or not enough.
“A full life” is the balance we reached and established within these 3 elements, the system equilibrium we achieved. And then continuously poke and probe to fill better the Void. Or so we think on the moment. A continuous tweaking, as in balancing the Chaos.
Our life will only let us glimpse absolutes, not define them. We will not experience nothing and everything. This is why the least efficient approach to filling the Void is to bet the house on only one life imperative, whether going all out on significance, sinking into oblivion or living only through material success. We may even been pushed into some of these choices by our experience, culture, or even our genetics… still, the solution is to balance an entire system of transitory goals.
We fill life’s void with an individual equation of our own device for our own sake, and so balance forever the-something-in-between that is our life.
This is how we fill it with our own significance.
Fun fact: “Nature abhors emptiness”, horror vacui. We can scientifically test this, and prove it repeatedly. And yet, even space is not the absolute emptiness we once thought; organisms do survive in it. Material, absolute Void does not exist naturally, only the absence of what we can list.