The Something That Is Nothing and the Nothing That Is Something


At the center of a wound, where we long to fill it with distraction, sensation, love, possession, whatever we have lost or lack and wish to find or recover, there is something. Yet because we are lonely or vulnerable or restless or pained, our attention is on the something that isn’t there. We spend lives looking to have things rather than not have them, to have rather than to lose: to feel complete, OK, unwanting, warm and secure. Some of us find it, fleetingly, at the end of a few glasses, or we stop thinking about it after we watch enough television, or as long as I can be held or know there is someone to hold me. We want something rather than nothing.

Things, however, fade. They even fail. We can see this clearly, if we’re courageous, when we notice how we still feel alone when they’re sleeping across from us, when the program ends and I still have no peace with the silence. An addict knows that, at a certain point, the next webpage or drink or binge is far less about feeling good than about not feeling horrendous, not falling off a cliff of despair carved out by using. How much substance is there really to the things with which we fill ourselves every day?

St Augustine suggested that evil is not anything in itself but, rather, the absence of the good. What does it mean to “not be a thing in itself” outside of a philosophy class? It’s to say it lacks a certain kind of everyday, walking-around reality. Put another way, think about a lie: the absence of truth. Even if it’s a slight distortion of the truth, the fact that it’s half true is what makes it untrue. Truth, on the other hand, is our everyday walking-around reality. So is a lie a thing, is it real? Well, in the sense that you can hear a lie and think about a lie and act on a lie, there’s something there, but not really. We might say a falsehood is all “smoke and mirrors.” It’s false, fake, phony. It’s like a nonsense word holding the place for a word and pretending to communicate something. It’s like the outline of a thing with no substance. It hits the ear, but it doesn’t speak meaning; it enters the stomach, but it doesn’t fill it. The information you act on in a lie disconnects you from reality like a bad map, and this we discover only after we’re lost after a bad turn at the wrong junction, looking for a city that doesn’t exist.

There are some things that are actually nothing.

On the other hand, there is the thing that we miss, which we don’t want to pay attention to for the hurt or discomfort. It is our pain, our loss, our loneliness, longing, emptiness. It is what we feel is our nothing, which we want to subvert with something, anything. “I have nothing left.” “There’s nothing in me.” “Nothing in me is loved.” “I am nothing.” What if this nothing really is something?

Our emptiness may in fact be the most real thing to us. Where loves and activity and pleasure are fleeting and insubstantial, why is it that the pit within us is so hard persistent? Its aching always out-endures our medicine. Its demands are often larger than the images we give it. Which ultimately seems more real, more true to us? This experience in our human bodies is something that we are able to hold, cradle, lift up. Our wound is something we are able to feel. It is us. It means we’re alive. Is there a gift here? Can we direct that wound, in its full measureless depth to Gød? What are words for it? What do we want the Gød who knows our wounds intimately to do with it? Can we make that into a prayer?


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