Life is empty at the top

I've won the game. Now what?

Topics: Since You Asked, Psychology,

Life is empty at the top (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I’m not exactly sure what’s wrong with me. I’m not yet 30 and have a great job, a great apartment and the freedom to do whatever I want whenever I want. I’m debt-free, travel a lot, eat out for lunch and dinner most days and buy whatever I want. I should point out that I live abroad, having moved thousands of miles away from home after college to chase something. To make a long story short, I started from scratch, built a life, worked my way up and through three jobs, with my eye always on something bigger. I built up massive credit card debt in the process, but that’s all paid off now. I’m a totally free man. In a way, I’ve achieved everything I had been working to obtain. My work is interesting and fast-paced. Family and friends admire me. I live in an exotic locale as an expat. I honestly don’t know many other people my age who are as advanced or comfortable in their careers. So many people I went to college with are still making $10 an hour, interning, or even living with their parents, not including those who are still in school pursuing a second or third advanced degree! I’m good-looking and healthy.

My problem is that I wouldn’t get out of bed most mornings if I didn’t have to get up and go to work. I’m terribly bored. People tell me to just switch things up, meet new people, go on dates … But it doesn’t quite work that way. Because of where I live, I’m really limited in terms of the people I’m able to meet and how much I can just switch things up. I have to worry about security, and it’s really not like I can just go to a bar and meet someone new or go explore a new part of the city. I’m pretty much limited to the expat circles here. And most people are older than me and with kids and dogs and houses and mortgages. I’ve given up on the thought of finding a romantic partner. I’ve been through my share of bad relationships in the past, and honestly I am fine on my own and probably better off. I’m not looking for drama or to complicate my life. I go to the gym, I cook, I watch movies, I buy crap … But every day is the same, and it’s starting to get terribly boring. Maybe I’m too young to have such a settled life. I’m not sure. I’m not exactly dying to be poor again or have so much uncertainty in my life. I enjoy my job and like the company and am grateful for where I am. But is this all I can expect — 30 to 40 years of repetitive days and then retirement? I have it better than most and so much freedom at the moment. But most of my freedom is wasted sleeping or watching TV. How do I find meaning now that everything else is all lined up and in good order?

I’ve been thinking about death lately for some reason unclear to me. It all started a couple of months ago when I was sitting in a restaurant with a friend eating a wonderful dinner and it just hit me, this great emptiness. Stuffing my face with food, having an amazing conversation with a close friend who I hadn’t seen in over two years. It wasn’t quite fear but something close: mostly just a great emptiness. I couldn’t eat after that. My night was ruined. And ever since that night I can’t shake these thoughts. I’ve been buying books about death, the afterlife (and whether it exists or not), the occult, and science. I’ve still got a lot of reading left to do. But I’ve been feeling kind of an emptiness. Hopefully it’s just the way I’ve been messing up my body with alcohol, cigarettes and nicotine patches. I quit smoking and I start smoking. I quit and I start. Over and over again. It can’t be good. The older I get the more it seems that loss is becoming a theme of life. First you lose your grandparents, then you lose your youth, then you lose your parents, and then you lose your life. It all goes according to plan. That is the best we can hope for. So how can we live with loss? People say they enjoy getting older, but I wish I could freeze time right now. Good job, money, health, looks, everything. So why am I still so unsatisfied? Why can’t I just enjoy this moment? I don’t know. I want to live forever. And the realization that I won’t is kind of preventing me from living in the moment because it all seems a little worthless — if I’m in an existential mood.

I have happier days when I feel connected to God and all that crap. But this is the general state of my thoughts at the moment.

Everyone wants to be special and do something great that no one else has done before and I’m coming to the realization that maybe I’m not special, that maybe I’m just normal. It’s kind of sobering. So I told myself that my purpose right now is going to just be the best that I can be. Get back in shape. Do good work. Be a good son and brother. Be a good friend. Take care of myself. Get off the booze and cigarettes. I tell myself this every day and then I end up out on the balcony drinking a vodka tonic with a smoke. Why do I sabotage myself? It seems so easy. And it is. I just want to get out of this funk. And I tell myself that everything else will just fall into place.

Where should I start?

Bored With Boredom

Dear Bored With Boredom,

You ask where you should start, but you have already started. You have had a moment of awakening.

I wonder what else happened when you were having dinner, and whom you were having dinner with, and what you were talking about, and how all that was connected to your moment of awakening. Perhaps something you were talking about triggered this. Or perhaps it was waiting, like a raindrop waits on the rim of a roof’s overhang until too plump to stay and falls to the tablecloth.

As you go through life now, you will want to pay attention to what you are doing and where you are when you feel this existential loneliness most acutely. That is because the world is speaking to you through this loneliness. It has been speaking to you all along, actually. It has already told you that certain riches are easy to acquire. Now it is telling you that other riches are harder. It has told you that you can easily win certain games. Now it is telling you that winning those games only gives you part of what you need. Now the world is telling you that underneath your success and physical satisfaction is a great emptiness.

It is not just your personal emptiness. It’s not like you did something wrong, like you should be full and you’ve made some mistake that made you empty. It is the world’s own emptiness. We’re all empty. The world is empty. It’s been like this for all of time. You’re just noticing it. You just happened to look down and gasp at the distance. You got a little vertigo, naturally. But this is an eternal condition — the condition that drives the saints and drives the poets and drives us insane if we don’t make friends with it.

There is nothing to worry about. This is how life is — we go about our business at death’s elbow, suspended above an infinite chasm. Here we are, about to be transformed into something else.

One way to quit smoking and drinking is to spend more time meditating. Just sit. Breathe from some place behind your navel. Relinquish all your thoughts and beliefs about how things are. Let this new inkling of the empty universe occupy your mind. Let your mind expand into this vast new space. Do not fear it. If memories from childhood rush into the void, do not fear them. Nothing can happen to you. You are blessed. You have been brought here for a reason. This reason may be kept secret from you. That is part of the game. But there is a reason. It will be revealed slowly, hint by hint.

Joy is a messenger. You will know what to do next by knowing what brings you joy. Wait to feel this joy. Follow it. It will lead you where you need to go. It might lead you to a sailboat or to a graveyard. Follow it.

The other stuff, don’t worry too much about it. If you are reading books about death, be sure to read Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death.” It’s a good book. And find a teacher, someone trained in modern psychotherapy, someone who seems to know something.

You may actively seek this teacher, or this teacher may come into your life seemingly out of nowhere — like that raindrop, like that moment of awakening — to teach you what you need to do next. Either way, some trust will be required. You will not be in control of this next chapter. You won’t be the world-beating superhero in this next chapter. That’s OK. You’re bored being the superhero anyway. Seriously: This will happen soon. You are obviously ready. Watch for it. Watch for the person who is going to come into your life and change everything. Be ready. Be receptive.  It will happen. This, too, is part of your education.

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