We all have that dark little corner of our mind.
Sometimes that dark corner broadcasts deafening PA announcements of our fears and regrets. Other times, we get quiet whispers of madness which convey intrusive thoughts such as jumping in front of an approaching train or eating three dozen doughnuts and taking up smoking. It amplifies all the difficult questions and unknowns everyone struggles with; the ideas which when acknowledged, add a crushing weight to life.
This is the call of the void.
The void is a common concept in philosophy and psychology. This mental construct is called the void because it represents pure nothingness, and the concepts that live within it rattle us to the deepest layer of existence1.
In a world comprised only of atoms and void2, of something and nothing, the emptiness offers a pristinely dark canvas to reflect back the hardest questions and concepts in life: mortality, purpose, choice, the inherent lack of meaning to existence, and the cosmic insignificance of the Earth, let alone us. Ironically, it’s all too easy to forget the relativity of life. That something only exists because there is nothing. That life only matters because we die. That peanut butter has jelly.
When people experience intrusive thoughts (re: death by train and doughnuts), feel the crushing weight of simply existing, and struggle with insidious ideas about mortality and purpose – this is often the void at work. The ‘abyss’ that exists within all of us. The dark side of our mental moon. And because these things hurt tremendously, we try to escape them. We try to keep ourselves busy so our mind is too preoccupied to go there, and so that we can minimize disruption to our life.
Nobody wants an existential crisis to kickoff the week. Eating chicken parm at 9:30am in your underwear while you frantically cancel all your calls and play the same song on repeat while wondering if this is all there is and always will be…and you technically keep choosing it so it’s really on you right??? Right?? No. No one needs that, not again.
Humanity shares a tricky relationship with the void. Like our dynamic duos up above, we need the void. It’s our ally in life. By engaging with it, by jumping headfirst into the inky waves, we challenge ourselves to face the scariest side of life. This dynamic, while frightening, pushes us toward something greater. You cannot live a truly fulfilling life without facing these questions. Without the void, you can never make an existential PB&J.
How and Why We Look Away
Engaging the void disrupts stasis. The struggle it creates is an overwhelming sensation. It is the pure sensation that we are nothing, that what we do doesn’t matter, and there is no inherent meaning to life.
And it’s all true.
Because of this, when looking at the void, typically, we blink. We look away.
In a society of instant gratification, we are deafened by soundbites and blinded by excerpts. The abundance of knowledge at our fingertips is a Promethean blessing. However, we want more, faster, and in smaller doses. These become the prescription to divert our attention and the justification for why we do it.
The ability to summarize things into an effective message is an invaluable skill and asset, but it has clear failings. Each of us carries around quote panels from the Stoics and the mantras of the Buddhists across 13 apps right in our pocket. We get bite size insights which we consume like skittles, but don’t do any of the background work to genuinely internalize the message.
This is wasted effort and forgone potential. Because without embracing the struggle, we are medicating ourselves back into an equilibrium which lacks the purpose and vibrancy it could have. We think we are improving ourselves with these sayings like “this too shall pass” or “nothing worth having ever came easy” – anything that ignores reality in place of a diluted version of Amor Fati3. But without embracing the struggle, without addressing life via void head on, these things maybe improve us but things don’t actually change. We just get more of the same, and we limit the potential of the concepts we so deeply prize, and we limit the potential of our lives.
You don’t get to build muscle without throwing plates on the bar. You don’t get to become a good chef without doing prep work and getting grease burns on your forearms. You don’t get to experience glimmers of equanimity through purpose without living the struggle to define it.
We take these distillations of wisdom and sprinkle them throughout our day like little chocolate chips on a cookie. Each bite of the cookie varies from meh to incredible, but the chocolate chips make every bite ok, because hey, it’s still chocolate. Our mantras and monologues of assurances are the pieces of little candied treats that keep our brain from smashing the cookie into a sandy mess in our most vulnerable states.
But what are these bite size pieces of enlightenment really providing us? Peace? Focus? On what? And there’s the issue. As is tradition for humans, we always want to skip the line and have more available at our fingertips for the same price. We want the answers without doing the work. We want to feel secure without enduring the struggle. The price of looking away from the void is everything.
Oops…Only Red Pills
Seeing the void is like seeing The Matrix. You don’t just un-see it, you can’t forget it’s there. And it can be so jarring, that people will go to extreme lengths to absolve themselves of what is their greatest potential endeavor – struggling for purpose and striving to reach their potential.
Some of us drown it away in nuclear green gin cocktails4, some rack up passport stamps like Pokémon cards, and some of us simply completely lose our fucking minds, patiently listening to a mind that never stops screaming. This desire to look away is core to human nature. And, sticking with The Matrix, don’t be a Cypher. Remember Cypher? The guy creepily eating that steak?5 Yeah that guy. Don’t be that guy. He was so focused on looking away, he was happy to condemn humanity.
This is not to admonish our human pursuits and creature comforts. I love Vegas the way I assume people pretend to love their toddlers in the ‘mine’ phase. But when those things become the how, the why, the what – all of the W’s and H’s we count on our fingers – instead of just a what, some of the time, we set ourselves up to fail. For the snowbirds, it’s just like skiing: if you pizza when you’re supposed to french fry – if you think the treats in life are the whys of life, if you ignore the struggle of the void when you’re seeking purpose – you’re gonna have a bad time6.
Because when we look at the void and start contemplating the visceral reality of things like:
- Oh, I’m going to die someday…maybe soon? Shit.
- Is death like how it was before I was born? What was that like? Oh.
- Is this it? I do this, what I did today? Everyday? Forever? Shit.
- Life has no meaning, because nothing matters, which is good because that frees me up to create meaning. How do I create meaning? What does that mean to me? How do I embody that? Oh. Oh no.
These things hurt, but as usual, this is the thing worth doing. This is the struggle of seeing The Matrix. Of starting to stare into the void and refusing to look away. Let the murky, oily abyss reflect back all of its terrors and refuse to blink. Keep looking.
Looking away does nothing. Like Cypher and Neo before you, you saw what you saw. You took the red pill. It’s over. So, you can embrace it, or wait until this comes back around for another existential boxing match and take your philososkittles and to try and keep cruising.
Here rests the issue with distillated wisdom. The Instagram word panels which act as a form of 21st century soma. The quotes, phrases, and excerpts? Nothing wrong with them. I love them. I use them here daily! No, the issue is when we take that as it is and apply it to things as they are. Because what is that doing? All it’s doing is offering transient serenity. And if there is anything I’ve learned from Frank Costanza and Cosmo Kramer, it’s “serenity now, insanity later”.7
Seeing the void (Matrix) is taking the red pill. Except you don’t get to choose, because it sort of just happens progressively, and then you look up and bam, you’re in it. There’s no going back. There’s no unseeing it.
Don’t Look Away, Don’t Blink
This is precisely why the flippant application of the distilled wisdom is so reckless. It feels like we circulate this information, which again is admittedly wonderful, but without the leg work of the struggle, without defining purpose, what does it really achieve? Maintenance.
The immediacy epidemic of our society deprives us of the deeper understanding that those concepts originate from, which when explored, enrich our lives. There’s a reason that people can pull phrases from people all the way from Seneca to Huxley, from Aurelius to Frankl and it feels like they’re talking about our lives right now. Like they are speaking directly to you and understanding exactly what you’re feeling and telling you exactly what you need to hear.
It’s not because they knew it would look great on Instagram or be great to quote for some manic wannabe writer (yours truly). It’s because these are the questions that come from the void, from the other side of life. If everything is balanced and has two sides, the gift of life and consciousness is burdened with the curse of the void, the journey for purpose, and…more consciousness.
Without the struggle, without purpose or focus, these fragments of insight placate us to keep things as they are. They make the present more tenable. They make things feel different while they really stay the same. This is why we can’t look away.
Staring into the void is a struggle. It’s the struggle. And only through struggle can we grow. Going through this, embracing the skull cracking reality of death, of nothingness, and the inherent purposelessness of life – of the fact that we are all choosing to be who we currently are – can drive to two things (with time and struggle). It can: 1. make you a more complete, engaged, and mindful version of the person you already are, or 2. make you address the tough reality that you have changes to make..big changes, changes that may shatter what you have already worked toward and the identity of who you are.
Most likely, it will be a blend of both. And that’s ok. That’s good.
This is the only way to transition from existing, to living. At least it’s the only way I’ve found.
1. Nietzsche’s description of the void is his abyss
2. Concept from Democritus
3. A powerful concept: https://dailystoic.com/amor-fati/
4. I’m referring to a Last Word – it’s like gin jet fuel
6. Learning to ski with South Park. “So where’s the part where we have a good time?”