I fear the Void

Maybe I'm over-complicating things, but it's the Void that keeps me awake at night

By Cary Tennis
Published March 24, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

Some questions are easy and some questions are hard. An easy question is where there's a yes or no answer. I like those questions. Then there are questions where before you can answer the question you have to define your terms and figure out what you're writing about. That's  harder.

I work on two or three questions at once sometimes. So the other day I was working on the column you'll be reading today, and I was working on the column you'll read tomorrow, and both of them were hard.

The letter that ran yesterday  looked easy. So I answered that one instead.

But then on the weekend our associate managing editor said that same question had appeared in Philip Galanes' Social Q's column in the New York Times Fashion & Style section. So I said hold off on that one. Let me see if I can write something to make sense of our two different responses.

So that's what ran yesterday. It was delayed because I was out of town over the weekend.

But now I'm back to the hard questions. Today I'm writing about "the Void."

How do you define "the Void"? I hate it when people are reductionist. I mean, I hate it when people say, Well, maybe you're talking about the void, but what you're really saying is you're just lonely. We do sometimes use a vocabulary that obscures rather than illuminates. But I like to treat a letter as a text with a life of its own. I try not to reduce it.

So the problem is how to define "the Void" in a way that allows us to talk about it, without being reductionist. How to enter into that world? It would be easy to say, Buck up, get with the program, but to accept the world as a person describes it, to enter into that world and speak with good will from that place, from inside that alien world, that's hard.

This is my attempt.

Dear Cary,

It has become clear to me over the years that I live not in eager anticipation of what the future might hold, or with a clear path to achieving my desires, or even with desires; rather, I live in constant fear of the Void. Big term, yes, and one loaded with a lot of probably pretentious philosophical baggage. Even so, I don't really read much philosophy anymore (that's a young man's pursuit, I think) and I don't really think of the Void as a concept with a history (even though, to an extent, it obviously is) so much as a personal certainty. The Void is just the truth of my life. And the fact is, it's an unpleasant truth.

What is the Void? I suppose it's either just a fancy way of talking about fear, or it's something specific that I fear. Loneliness, solitude without end, aimlessness, real uncertainty about not only what I might want, but about my ability to do anything. These are just words that come to mind. Really, it's quite difficult to describe ... Imagine standing in a small colorless room with no furniture, doors or windows. The room is its own structure. It is not connected to any larger structure. It is all but soundproof. Going into the Void is like going into that room.

But I guess the Void's characteristics (or lack of characteristics, as the case may be) are less important than the fact that I really fear this place, and I do anything I can, it seems, to avoid it. What's an example of doing anything I can to avoid the Void? Well, anything. When I learned that it was important to make friends (yes, I had to learn this, and quite late in life -- maybe my mid-20s) I made friends because I'd been living in the Void. Everything I do is an attempt to escape the Void.

The thing is, I feel the Void is also inescapable. I'm going toward it whether I like it or not. If today I have friends and some kind of purpose, tomorrow I might not. Ten years from now, I might not. And no, the Void's not death. Death isn't all that mysterious to me. It's hard to fear death, since you can't experience death. It makes sense to fear the Void, since it can be experienced. The loneliness, the lack of direction, the sense of confinement, the feeling there is no world beyond ... these can all be experienced, and their experience is horrifying.

I suppose the question is: What should I do? Is the Void going to be with me forever? I have this sense that I'd like to replace responding to the Void as my life strategy with ... I don't know, goal-oriented behavior, I guess. Or faith that the future will be there for me. Even if fearing the Void helps me get out of bed most days, some days it doesn't. And I'm pretty sure a day will come when I won't get out of bed at all. Yet I don't want to think this way. What can I do?

In Fear of the Void

Dear Fear of the Void,

As I was saying in my little note up top, I hate being reductionist. So I won't tell you the Void is anything other than what you speculate it might be. Luckily, you speculate that it might be "just a fancy way of talking about fear, or it's something specific that I fear."

That's good for starters. Without being reductionist, because I'm sure this Void has characteristics that make it more interesting than regular fear, let's start with the fear that is a component. What is it that you fear? What is the fear's object? "Loneliness, solitude without end, aimlessness, real uncertainty about not only what I might want, but about my ability to do anything," you say.

"These are just words that come to mind," you say.

Let's think about words literally "coming to mind." Picture them as messengers from someplace. Imagine that they are, in their humble way, telling you exactly what the deal is. I suggest that you treat these words as carriers of the truth. They are words that "came to mind." Why else would they come to mind if not bearing truth? Imagine an engine of truth spinning off words that just "come to mind." Treat these words that come to you as true. See what they say. They seem to say that what troubles you is fear.

Must your fear have an object? To be knowable, it seems to me that it does. So what is the object of your fear? "Loneliness, solitude without end, aimlessness, real uncertainty about not only what I might want, but about my ability to do anything."

So let's talk about fear of loneliness, solitude, aimlessness and uncertainty.

If you fear these things they must be real to you. You must have experienced them to fear their return.

But wait. Is it fear or desire? Loneliness is what we call it when we desire someone's presence, right? So whose presence do you desire? Would loneliness not cease if someone appeared to console us? So is not loneliness really desire? And cannot desire be satisfied through action?

There are obstacles, of course. The one person who you think would cure your loneliness may not be available. You could find out. But you may have to accept a substitute person. That is not so bad. We find that desire can be satisfied in various ways. It does not always have to be the one person we think it has to be. Sometimes anyone will do. We just don't want to be alone at a time like this. A time like what? A time like this.

The Void can be filled by satisfying known desires. In fact, we have little choice. That is, our unknown desires cannot be satisfied. We cannot satisfy a desire we do not feel. So I suggest you put aside for now the desires that you aren't sure you have, and make a list of the desires you do have. Then look over them to see which ones may be satisfied. Then begin satisfying your desires. That will tend to fill the Void.

Life can be made quite interesting and satisfying just in this way. The fear of loneliness need not exist once you are certain you know how to cure loneliness.

You also mentioned "real uncertainty about not only what I might want, but about my ability to do anything." You fear that you may not have the ability to do anything. Let's try to understand what you mean. You must fear not being able to do specific things. Otherwise there is no fear. Fear can feel like it has no object but that is just because we haven't found its object.

What do you fear not being able to do? Make a list: I fear not being able to raise a family. I fear not being able to have a stable relationship. I fear not being able to hold a job. I fear not being able to win literary prizes and medals. I fear not being able to run a marathon.

Words will "just come to you" if you summon them.

So I've gone on long enough about this. But I want you to know that I engage with you. I accept the fact that you fear the Void. I am suggesting that you populate the Void with your own fears and desires, and then deal with them one by one.

If the Void is thus populated, does it remain a Void? That is an intriguing question.

On a related topic, I realized recently how much of my waking life was spent avoiding unpleasant things. I decided to learn to endure unpleasant things instead of avoiding them. Maybe that has something to do with your case, too. If you are paralyzed by your thoughts, well, that is an experience of the Void. You can eliminate that by taking action even if you don't know what the results will be. Try out a hypothesis: Trust the words that "just come to you." Trust the things you just feel like doing, and do them. It will lead somewhere out of the Void.

You can change the basis of your life from avoiding pain to seeking beauty. It's just a heck of a lot more interesting that way. And if you're not afraid of dying, then there's really nothing standing in your way.

It really doesn't make sense to be afraid of dying.

So I suggest that rather than try to find a life devoid of discomfort, embrace the discomfort. Let it be. Focus on the things that interest you. Allow yourself to feel bad. It won't kill you. And life will be much more interesting.

Go have some experiences. Endure some discomfort. Get used to uncertainty. Change your principle from avoidance of discomfort to seeking of beauty.

Keep finding beauty. The beauty is worth the pain. There is much in life that can get you through the awfulness. Keep seeking it out. Find music and art and literature that will sustain you. The Void won't go away. You have to keep filling it. But the more you fill it, the less of a void it is. One day, you may be able to completely avoid it.

In San Francisco we have been saying, Fear the Beard. Now we will also say, Avoid the Void.

January 2011 Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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