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“Being empty is a lot like knowing the words to a song but not knowing the music. Feeling full is just the opposite. You know both the words and the music to the song and are able to sing them aloud with your whole heart.”
“I don’t know why I’m I so unhappy. I’m proud of being successful. I make a comfortable living with a good job. My wife is gorgeous and we are reasonably happy together. Our kids do well in school. We have savings for our retirement years. We go to many parties with our friends throughout the year. In winter we all go to a Caribbean resort Now how bad can that be? Wouldn’t you like a life like mine? Well you can have it. It’s actually rather flat.”
“Oh my God. Ever since I retired I’ve been working more than when I had a full-time job. There’s nothing like being needed. My mom is in her eighties and losing her memory. So I drive her to all of her doctor’s appointments and make sure she is not lonely. My oldest just had a baby and asks for all the support I can give her. I am over there twice a week as she gets overwhelmed with being a new mom. You know how that is. She is even talking about having another child within a year. My oldest son who is out of state just got divorced and wants me to stay with him and his two children for a month until he can get his feet back on the ground. His wife ran off with another man and left him with the kids. I really feel for him. Also, I love being around my grandkids. They love their nana. My husband, whom I never see, just leaves it all to me and plays golf a lot. He says no one has my magic touch. Of course my church has signed me up for cooking for all the funerals. We have a lot of old-timers at our church. You know what that means. So I go from being a wife, to being a mom to the rescue, to a nana, to the darlings, to a nurse practitioner to my feeble mom to being a cook for families of dying people in our aging church. Geeze. When I used to work in the hospital as a nurse at least I had some time for myself. Now I feel I have no time for me. I’m worried about losing me.”
Too many of us are not taking the time to ask ourselves whether our life has any meaning or we have any significance. We’re not even aware there is a question to ask. Most of us are too narrowly focused on ourselves in a fog and what we need to be successful, or at the opposite extreme of constantly doing for others and not respecting ourselves. Most of us lead lives of culturally- driven oblivion and self-deception. With good intentions we are just doing what is expected of us and trying to lead the good life.
There is way more to life than just living for ourselves, however. If we just do things for ourselves or exclusively for others we will feel quite empty and perhaps just go through the motions of living rather than feel we are truly alive. Too much of American culture is focused on superficial living, the pursuit of individual gratification and avoiding vulnerability. Most of us are so focused on career success and entertainment that we don’t ask why we want to succeed or what really feeds our soul. We don’t even know what we are really missing. But in fact we are really missing something essential to our happiness.
Living the unexamined life makes us feel quite anxious and empty. When we are not living with a personal experience of the Greater Good of Humanity or a relationship to a Higher Power we feel quite alone and insignificant no matter how much fame and fortune we accrue or how many so-called friends we have. We get bored with ourselves and feel that nothing means very much to us. This psychic numbness is our emptiness. It’s like we are alive but not really alive. Many of us become depressed when we are empty and then chase the latest novelty to get out of it. But there is no way out of it. All of us need to live a meaningful life just as much as we need air to breathe.
What is it like to feel full?
Being empty is a lot like knowing the words to a song but not knowing the music. Feeling full is just the opposite. You know both the words and the music to the song and are able to sing them aloud with your whole heart. It gives you a way to feel connected to others, as good music does, and a sense of optimism that you are always connected to others as the song in your heart can always be played over and over again and other people will respond to it, even people you don’t know. It’s as if there is a special force within you that can always connect to others and to their special force. When you feel full you never worry about being alone or left out since you are always connected either by personal memories or through a Higher Power that you share with others. You also don’t worry about death very much when you’re full since you are personally aware of your connection to mankind that lives well beyond your individual life. Often people who are full have had many extrasensory experiences of being connected to people they have no apparent connection with. Some of these experiences occur when you fall in love with another. When you are full it’s like you are always in love with others, as if there are no strangers in your life. Even when your human frailties show you always feel acceptable.
I remember when our family started doing volunteer work at Loaves and Fishes. We served hot meals to homeless people once a month at a shelter. At first we were scared to even be around homeless people. Would they be violent? Would they steal from us? We wondered how to relate to them. After all, we have everything we need at our house. Well, everything changed once we did the meals. We found that homeless folks had something that we lacked. That something was gratitude and human warmth. It amazed our kids that people who had almost nothing could be so grateful for even small acts of kindness. We never felt grateful at our house as everything came easily. Yet everyone in the food line thanked us just for being there. We kidded them about being free spirits who at their heart were very much like ourselves. Their confidence to survive in the coldest of weather baffled all of us. They all treated us with respect as we did them. We liked the same music and would sing with them. It was a big love fest and we have become regular volunteers for the last five years. Later on, we realized that homeless people came for the respect and fellowship just as much as the food. One homeless man said it best, “You know we can get good food, maybe even better, at other food shelves. It’s the smiles we come for.”
Cultural trap of emptiness
I could write books on the many ways our culture — through our televisions and computers — help us all feel empty and insignificant. These devices continually remind us of our inability to measure up unless we buy their expensive products. Commercial TV does its number on us daily. Having the majority of TV programs being mindless and humorously moronic or else intensely terrifying in their gruesomeness makes us believe that this is all we can expect from life or ourselves. This drivel pales in comparison with the seductive grasp of social media that continually reinforces how we are missing out and can only find true happiness by going viral on our cellphones. Most of what is on the modern media is sadistic humor disguised as just having fun at other people’s expense. The over focus on “ME” on all these devices and the dazed states of our brains leave us with very little to relate to people in real time or sense of something beyond ourselves. We cannot even discern what is meaningful in our lives when those parts of our brains are damaged by culture and social media. Today’s culture is like getting an emotional lobotomy and pretending that we are human. A client of mine said it best, “It’s fakebook, not facebook that people are on.”
Psychological origins of emptiness
Clearly some of us grew up with difficult circumstances that leave us empty. If we were emotionally abandoned by our parents, say, through their drug and alcohol use, then we would have internalized their lessons inside ourselves. We see ourselves as unworthy of love and lack inner resources for accepting ourselves. As we repeatedly avoid nurturing ourselves we maintain an inner void which we mistakenly try to fill with externals. Those of us who grew up with narcissistic but well-meaning parents have sealed ourselves off from loving ourselves. We have been hurt once too often to allow others to open our hearts to anybody. We may live in a continual numb state where nothing ever touches our inner core and we tend to keep everything on the surface. We maintain an empty store inside ourselves because it’s way too painful to take in other people’s love. Our grief for what we never received is sealed off in a locked vault because we fear it will overwhelm and poison us if we feel it. Actually, just the opposite is true: Our grief is the seed bed for our new growth.
Clearly each of us defines meaning in his or her unique way. It would be presumptuous for me to tell you what is meaningful for you. However there are some guidelines I can pass on to help you lead a fuller life. Here they are for you, below, to clip out and carry with you or tuck in a book to refer to when the need or mood strikes. Life can be sweet!
John Driggs, L,I.C.S.W. is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1900). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.