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An Essay on Nothing

What’s wrong?

Nothing.

Seriously, man, is there something…

No. Nothing.

Well, okay.

I’m convinced that this is one of those conversations that flits around the ephemeral world of forms and finds itself manifested in a million particular interchanges in the world. Or, at least, this would be my conviction if I believed in an ephemeral world of forms. But that’s another story, not this one.

What I am sure of is that nobody means “nothing” in such an interchange, no matter how much they insist on it. The proof is in the anger and frustration that accompanies such an assertion. While we often mistake it for anger at the inquirer, that’s not it. Instead, it is a frustration born of not knowing – of a sense of reasonlessness. It’s not that nothing’s wrong, it’s that nothing explains the wrongness we feel.

So then, nothing must be something. Indeed, it is one of the most significant somethings in life. When something is wrong, when I can point to it and name it, it is bearable. Even if I can’t fix it, naming it gives me power over it. I am freed from its terror because it has meaning.

But nothing, that is the monster that lurks in the dusty corners of my dreams. It chases me for no reason, and my legs move like syrup trying to escape because there is nowhere I can run. Nothing is the thing I can’t name, can’t explain, can’t see. Nothing is the beast that creeps into the space where meaning isn’t.

*****

The same this is true of other conversations. “What are you doing?” My wife asks me. “Oh, nothing.” I reply.

Of course this is nonsense. I’m doing a thousand things. My heart is thumping out its double-beat bass line. My lungs are cymbals sizzling with oxygen. A dozen thoughts, half-conceived melody lines, are dancing through my head. I am immersed in the music of life. It’s the music of being. But somehow, it’s all nothing because there is an unbridgeable gulf between that tune and the soaring symphony of doing something.

“Nothing” is like a sound check. It’s the snare drum testing the mike levels and the guitar strings twanging out little proofs that they are indeed in tune. They are there. But the mandolin licks and bass lines aren’t music, can’t be music. They exist, but they aren’t doing anything. They aren’t tickling my ears or tugging at me heart.

If all I get from a band is the sound check, I find myself once again angry and frustrated. If all I get from life is the harmony of my anatomy, I get restless and irritable. Nothing is something, but its nothing satisfying. That is the realm of music and meaning.

*****

So what is nothing? It is, for us, the word we use to describe what happens when there’s nothing behind us, nothing beneath us. It is reasonlessness, as in “nothing’s wrong.” It is also aimlessness, as in “I’m doing nothing.” But it can also mean something else as well, and it is this something else that really gives the word away.

When a friend tells me they believe nothing about religion or politics or ethics or whatever, they cannot mean that they really don’t have any beliefs or opinions in any of these spheres. At the very least, they do or don’t pray, do or don’t think the government should be able to make them do certain things, and do or don’t kill people for no apparent reason. All of this sounds suspiciously like something.

But most people don’t just stop there. They might meditate with crystals, pray to Buddha or wear a cross necklace. They have defined opinions about almost every political issue and vote regularly and with great gusto. They have a very defined sense of what’s right and wrong, particularly as it pertains to what people are doing to them. This isn’t just something, it is a cacophony of somethings all blaring out their horn parts at the same time and in different keys.

Yet people insist that this clatter of noise amounts to nothing. How can this be? I think the answer is simple. Its not that people believe nothing, its that there is nothing beyond them demanding their belief. If they believed in Jesus or Allah or G-d or Zeus, they would be acknowledging something beyond them – something behind them – which defines belief for them.

This is why the god of nothing is such a popular fellow. Oh, he might be there. But he’s a conveniently agnostic deity. I can say that he exists or that he doesn’t, or more likely that I don’t know and probably can’t. After all, why would he care about a tiny planet in the corner of some galaxy where some pretentious apes have started walking around with animal skins on and blowing each other up?

In a real sense, this is belief in nothing – belief in nothing important. Nothing is in fact any something stripped of significance. It might be something, but it doesn’t mean anything. And so we go about insisting that nothing is the One Great God, and we might or might not serve him however we see fit.

*****

I am told that my generation is characterized by suspicion of hypocrisy. Of course, I’m suspicious of any such sweeping generalization about “my generation.” After all, isn’t it hypocritical for people to paint others with a broader brush than they would themselves? And so I both disprove and prove the point.

The truth is, I think we are suspicious. My whole life is a line of people preaching something and failing to live up to it. Every politician is corrupt. Every life-changing product leaves me underwhelmed. Every religion ends in an explosion of power grabs and sex scandals. Something always seems to end in hypocrisy, and so we trust in nothing, insisting that nothing is really behind it all. Away with these somethings and the liars that teach them! Let my story be about nothing. Then at least it will be a true lie instead of a pretense.

But there is a hypocrisy of nothing as well. This is apparent in all of us. Nothing is like a vacuum. Something always seems to creep in. We try to tell our story about nothing, but it has a funny way of ending in Meaning and Significance. Nirvana is that place where true and false truly cease to exist. We don’t just fail to live up to the something that is nothing, we can’t even bring ourselves to admit our failure, because then a thousand somethings would come barreling in and wreck our party.

I once met a man who insisted he believed in nothing. He was, he asserted, simply a product of a certain culture, education and upbringing. Those factors were just thrown in a martini shaver with some lumps of genetics and a twist of luck, and out he came. Of course, his conviction and his analogy proved that he was indeed a product of a certain culture and upbringing, but that’s another story.

I met this man in Africa. He was a tourist there, and terribly excited to experience the local culture. After all, if he believed in nothing, what was there to get offended about? The first day he bought African shirts and ate African food and joked about being a Mzungu (white person). By the second day, however, something was wrong.

This man I met was, unfortunately for his trip, a hypocrite. He really did believe things. Lots of them. Culture, as it turns out, has little to do with what kinds of shirts you wear. He began trying to convince the Africans that they were wrong to be Christian, which almost all of them were. They should go back to their tribal religions. This confused most of them. This “open” and “tolerant” white man seemed to think he knew far more about their religious life than they did, simply because it was white men with the same attitude who had brought them Christianity in the first place. Then he encountered the other side of the equation, and started trying to convince tribesmen that they needed modern medicine instead of the charms and incantations of witch doctors. He left Africa frustrated and unhappy but still insisting that he believed nothing lay behind it all.

The hypocrisy of nothing exists because we all want life to sing. Nobody is content with the sound check. Some people are convinced there is something there behind it all, and that is the tune of their lives. Those of us who hear them miss notes and botch verses reject the hope of music and go on singing anyway. Who is the greater fool?

*****

I once had a very outspoken atheist point out to me that I was just as much an atheist as he was when it came to Zeus or Thor or Krishna. He was quite right as far as it goes. I don’t believe in the Greek or Norse gods, although I hope I’m not as angry at Zeus or Thor as he seemed to be at Jesus. Other than that lightning bolt wrecking my computer, they’ve never done wrong by me.

That said, his point escaped me. After all, I’m just as much not-an-atheist (in the way he meant it) as I am not-a-Hindu or not-a-Muslim. How was the fact that I happen to believe something in particular an argument for his position?

As I listened to the athiest for a while, I started to realize what was going on. He was trying to convince me that since I believed nothing in regards to Aphrodite and Allah, I should also believe nothing about Yahweh or Jesus. He seemed to think this was what he was doing. He was consistently believing nothing while I was only inconsistently doing so.

Yet this misses the point. I don’t believe nothing about Thor, but rather something – that he doesn’t exist. This isn’t inconsistent atheism, it’s consistent Christ-following. It might be presumptuous, but I’m pretty sure the same thing is true of my atheist friend. He believes all sorts of things, including a number of things about religion. He isn’t a Christian because he believes that the universe is nothing but matter and that God endangers his understanding of Science.

This doesn’t mean he’s wrong, and it doesn’t make me right. But what is wrong is to pretend like one of us is above the other. We both believe things, we both bring things to the table. That’s great; let’s sit there, have a beer and talk a while. It’s only when you pretend like you’re not at the table that things start to fall apart.

*****

All of this is just a long-winded way of lodging a simple plea: let’s thumb our noses at convention, shock the powers-that-be and have an unabashed, unadulterated conversation about something. We all have convictions. We all believe things.

The problem with nothing is that it’s the sort of tower we find in fairy tales. It protects us from the world out there, the world of bigots and fundamentalists, of ideologues and demagogues. All their flaming arrows are deflected by our insistence that we’re the ones without beliefs, without convictions.

Yet while we are safe, we are also prisoners. This tower has no doors. Instead we sit on our balconies and wish that some hero would come and break us free. It’s like when I tell a friend that “nothing’s wrong” while I’m a wreck inside. It protects me from baring my heart, from risking this other human being clumsily dropping it, or (as I truly fear) taking one look at it and walking the other way as quickly as is polite. But it never gets better. It never heals.

If I were a romantic and a chauvinist, I suppose I’d want to be the Prince Charming that throws rocks at our window and asks you to let down your hair. But that makes it sound like I’ve got it figured out, and that’s certainly not the case. Besides, I might break your golden tresses if I tried that particular climb. Instead, I’ll be the faerie that flutters through your window. Let’s talk a while, and maybe if you like the melody, we can try a bit of dancing as well. It’s a tune as old as the trees, and then some.

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