I should probably wait until Thanksgiving to publish this article, when everyone is busy giving thanks for everything. As you may have guessed by now, I generally have a different perspective on things. Instead of joining the crowd and urging you to be thankful for the things you have in your life, I want you to be thankful for the things that you don’t have. First of all, I want you to empty your mind… think about “nothing”, and then consider and appreciate the inherent value of the absence of things.
Every now and then, I will stop what I’m doing for a few seconds, and think about how I feel at that moment. Specifically, I will concentrate on feeling nothing. This habit was precipitated by two events:
Event #1: A few years ago, I went to the Mississauga Waterfront festival, and as I was walking around, a lady handed me a free sample of Motrin (a brand of ibuprofen) and a coupon. At first I wondered if I looked like I was battling a headache, but I’m sure that she was handing out these free samples to everyone. She asked me what I usually use for pain, which struck me as an odd question, since I get a headache only once every 2-3 months. If the headache is bad then I’ll take an aspirin, but they usually disappear on their own by the next morning. Afterwards, I thought about our conversation and how she assumed that everyone must get headaches regularly and therefore needs a pain killer. I wondered how frequently other people get headaches, and if this type of pain is a normal or expected part of their daily or weekly life.
Event #2: I had a sinus infection that just wouldn’t go away. Advil offered temporary relief, but it took several trips to the doctor and three different antibiotics before it was finally gone. When the pain finally disappeared, it was my awakening. I developed an appreciation for the absence of pain. In fact, I remember being at my computer and then stopping and thinking to myself “Hey – I don’t feel any pain. Nothing hurts – my body is completely pain-free. This is amazing!”.
No one ever wakes up in the morning and is thankful that they don’t have a toothache, but this is just the attitude that I think we should develop – being aware and appreciative of the total absence of any pain or discomfort. Since these two events, I’ve been doing that regularly.
Enjoy The Silence
A couple of years ago, I was reading an article about tinnitus, a persistent ringing in the ears that can be caused by a number of things: multiple sclerosis, ear infections, using certain antibiotics, exposure to gunshots, or using earbuds (as opposed to over-the-ear headphones) at high volume levels. In many cases, this condition is permanent. According to this article, many celebrities have tinnitus, including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Barbra Streisand, Bono, Neve Campbell, Huey Lewis, Ozzy Osbourne and Sylvester Stallone. Many tinnitus sufferers will never experience silence. If you are able to, then consider yourself lucky.
Last summer, I was walking on the sidewalk beside a normally busy street, and I experienced something extraordinary. The traffic lights at the intersections on either side of me synced up, resulting in no cars between them (in either direction) and an eerie silence that lasted for 20-30 seconds. It was unexpected, and the strangeness of it all made me stop walking and just listen. I felt that this is how the community should sound – the normal sounds of nature and people that aren’t drowned out by the incessant white noise of traffic. Despite my decidedly urban surroundings, everything seemed very peaceful and soothing.
The Space Between
“Music is the space between the notes” – Claude Debussy
People underestimate the importance of the rest in music. Without rests, music would be a cacophonous nightmare – much like the incessant roar of traffic or a dozen simultaneous conversations – with all instruments playing all the time. Similarly, there should be a rhythm in our own lives, in the form of rest and relaxation. Even God rested on the seventh day, and for almost 2,000 years, resting on the seventh day was a law in much of North America (those of you over 40 may still remember when stores were always closed on Sunday). Remove the term “24-7” from your vocabulary, and resist the urge to become a workaholic. Treat yourself to some down time; enjoy your weekends and statutory holidays; take regular vacations and leave your electronic tether at home.
I always enjoy chatting with my high school friend Doug because he makes so many insightful observations. Last month, someone asked him what his favourite key was on a computer keyboard. He replied “My favorite key is the spacebar. Each space means a word has been completed; it always feels like progress somehow, just like walking north somehow always feels like you’re going uphill”. What would text be without a space? Just a string of letters, pushed together almost incomprehensibly, and without any visual pattern or structure. The spaces make our thoughts and ideas readable and organized. Text without spaces is the printed equivalent of crowd noise – information is contained within the individual conversations, but it’s fiendishly difficult to decipher. The image below contains the first few paragraphs of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, but with all of the spaces removed. Try reading it, and you’ll quickly discover that what is usually enjoyable and relaxing has now become a chore.
Now let’s move from books to computer source code. Almost every aspect of our daily lives is controlled by code. Today, most consumer items – and even most late-model cars, which, only two generations ago, used to be purely mechanical – rely on thousands of lines of instructions programmed into ROM chips. If you’re a programmer, then you understand the frustration of trying to decipher code that isn’t formatted neatly or commented thoroughly enough – now imagine thousands of lines computer source code written without any additional white space. While spaces are needed to separate commands, operations, parameters and variables, all additional spaces and blank lines are generally ignored by compilers and interpreters. They exist only for our own readability. Without white space, source code would be all but impossible to read, let alone modify or debug.
Here is a monthly calendar, but it’s probably not your calendar because there’s nothing written on it. There are no tests or exams to study for, no meetings to attend, no errands to run, no doctor’s appointments – nothing but four weeks of unscheduled time. Imagine an entire month when you can wake up every morning, throw open your curtains and say “It’s another wonderful day in my life – every hour of this day is my own, to do as I please!”.
Look up at the night sky – as far away as possible from the light pollution of urban areas – and gaze into the vast nothingness of space. Develop an appreciation of the enormity of the cosmos, and how insignificant we are in comparison. Whatever problems you may have are almost immeasurable when framed against the entire universe – which consists of 4.2 x 10-21% matter, and 99.999,999,999,999,999,999,995,8% space.