It’s a new year, and time to make some New Year’s resolutions! So, why do we make them now, and not during other months? Surely it would be more efficient if we resolved to do something as soon as we recognized the need, rather than wait until January 1st. We wait because we visualize our lives in annual blocks of time, rather than a continuous, flowing stream. Personally, I blame that traditional illustration of the New Year’s baby for reinforcing this paradigm. During the first week of January, the entire year is spread out before us, like a long, untrodden snowy path, or a pristine beach. However, drawing a line in the proverbial sands of time, and then stepping over it to gaze out at the vast, empty expanse that defines the coming year is also daunting. Each January 1st, we look at the year ahead and gaze into an unknown, uncharted and unpredictable future. Making New Year’s resolutions creates a framework and at least gives us the impression that we know where our lives are headed during the next twelve months.
I think that our New Year’s resolutions are fascinating, because when they are viewed from The Bob Angle, they reveal a new (and until now, hidden) aspect of human nature. In my opinion, we make our resolutions because we are afraid of nothing. That doesn’t mean that we are all courageous souls who aren’t afraid of anything – it means that we are uncomfortable with the concept of nothing, whether it’s silence, unallocated time, empty space or simply the lack of material possessions.
I believe that our aversion to this concept is because nothing is associated with the number zero. Zero has no value. If there is nothing, rather than something, then it must also have no value. Therefore, in order to add substance to our lives, we need to fill it with something… anything.
Naturally, merchants are more than eager to help us do this. Just browse any catalogue, flyer or magazine and you’ll see the same message expressed in hundreds of ways “your self-identity and/or your self-worth is defined by what you own”.
If you think that you’re immune to these messages, then take a moment and look around your own home. We spend years filling our living spaces with our purchases. In fact, at this moment, your house likely contains more material things than usual, now that Christmas has just passed. Not only are our rooms filled with items, but we also buy storage cabinets and closet organizers to fit even more stuff into our available space. Now imagine walking into a friend’s house and discovering a room that’s completely empty. Your friend sees your startled reaction and explains “Our house has seven rooms but our family needs only six to live comfortably, so this room is for future expansion”. Clearly, nobody does this; no matter how many rooms we have in our house, we will fill all of them with something because we can’t deal with the idea of empty or unused space.
If you’re a regular reader of advice columns, then you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Ann Landers, Dear Abby and everyone else will say the same thing repeatedly “it’s better to be single than to be stuck in a bad relationship”. Some people have this mindset; they need to have someone around, otherwise there will be no one in their lives, and someone (anyone) must be of greater value than no one.
In addition to having a fear of nothing, we often project it onto other people. During the past decade, I’ve met many parents who schedule just about every waking hour of their kids’ time with hockey and soccer practices, karate classes, music lessons, and a plethora of other activities. As a result, their kids don’t have any unstructured free time that will allow them to use their imaginations and make up their own games.
A recent New York Times column, entitled The Busy Trap, provides an insightful commentary on our society’s “glorification of busy”. The author suggests that our frantically busy days are merely a way of hiding the emptiness in our lives. If we are always occupied, then we never have an opportunity to be alone with our thoughts, which may be a terrifying prospect to some people.
Advertising executives are the best example of our this collective aversion to the idea of nothing. A blank wall must have a billboard on it, or else it’s not really functional. There are now logos on the soles of running shoes, advertisements on staircase risers, web site addresses on Popsicle sticks, and searchlights shining store logos on shopping mall floors. I’ve even read an article about the feasibility of placing short (two-second) ads between the telephone rings, when we’re placing a call.
Television news reporters are an interesting breed; they abhor silence and will say just about anything to ensure that television viewers don’t experience it. This past summer, when the Duchess of Cambridge was about to give birth, a gaggle of reporters gathered outside St. Mary’s hospital in London, ready to report the news. They were waiting for hours, and even though there was nothing to report, and nothing new to say to the viewers, that didn’t stop them from speaking incessantly anyway, as this segment of Charlie Brooker’s 2013 retrospective illustrates.
I’ve also noticed another interesting behavioural quirk: not only do we have to fill all of the emptiness in our lives, we have to fill all of it, and as quickly as possible. Allocating everything vanquishes the void, and fills us with (I’m guessing) a Nietzschean sense of accomplishment. Personally, I think that a healthier approach is adopting what I call the “hard drive” method. When we buy a new hard drive, we fill it up slowly, over several months or even a couple of years.
This desire to eliminate all of the nothingness at once is what I think is behind writer’s block, and a writer’s paralyzing fear of the proverbial blank page. We stare at the blank page and feel that we need to fill it completely, rather than just a small portion of it.
That’s also why we make New Year’s resolutions. You don’t make January resolutions – you make them for the entire year. Rather than live one day at a time and take whatever opportunities present themselves that day, we have a need to schedule the entire year through our resolutions. This gives us a sense of victory over the vast swath of free time that we suddenly see before us each January. Once all of the space on the calendar is allocated, then we are victorious, since the entirety of our perceived block of time has been filled.
Young people often talk about how they intend to change the world after they graduate. Part of this is attributable to a youthful idealism, but I think that some of it could also be our desire to fill the vast swath of time that makes up the rest of their lives. When Steve Jobs started Apple Computer in the late 1970s, he didn’t merely want to sell computers, he wanted to “make a dent in the universe”. When we’re in university, our entire lives are in front of us – decades of time, waiting to be filled. That’s why I think that many of us have such grandiose ideas. We need ambitious dreams to fill all of that space, and we will speak grandiloquently of our plans to make our mark upon the world.
A recent television series called Underemployed inadvertently illustrates this point. It’s a fictional, scripted series that follows the lives of five people who have just graduated from college, and who each have grandiose plans for making their mark upon the world. One year later, reality gets in the way of their dreams of world domination, and they each find themselves working in jobs that they would (a year previously) consider beneath them. The first 45 seconds of the show’s trailer illustrates this contrast quite well.
Think of your life as a blank notebook. Each day, we write a little more of our life story in that notebook, and the remaining space decreases. As we age, we have fewer blank pages to fill, and with each passing day/week/month, we fill up an increasing percentage of that remaining space. That, in my opinion, is one reason why we develop a greater appreciation for the little things in life as we get older. One of my Facebook friends, a lady in her late 40s, posted the that she glad to be home, in her PJs, and lying on the couch watching her favourite television program – and then added “Life is good”. Another Facebook friend, a man also in his late 40s, posted “Home… fish & chips for dinner… cold beer in the fridge. Yes indeed, it is the simple things that make us happy”. A 20-something would never find happiness in these ordinary activities.
Conquer Your Fear of Nothing
Let’s start by studying someone whom I consider a true visionary: Steve Jobs. You can say what you like about his abrasive personality, but Steve Jobs actually embraced what most of us avoid. Unlike the vast majority of the population, he (at least during the early 1980s) didn’t have a need to fill up his entire house (or even a single room) with stuff. He bought only what he needed, and was comfortable being surrounded by empty space.
This is a photo of Jobs sitting in the living room of his Los Gatos house. It was taken on December 15, 1982, by Diana Walker, who was a White House photographer at the time. The accompanying quote by Jobs was “This was a very typical time. I was single. All you needed was a cup of tea, a light, and your stereo, you know, and that’s what I had.”
The ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, had an interesting perspective on the balance between things and the absence of things. In his book Tao Te Ching, he writes “Clay is moulded to make a pot, but it is in the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.”
While I certainly can’t compete with Steve Jobs or Lao Tzu, I did make an attempt to notice and appreciate the nothingness in my life by writing a blog post about my new philosophy called A Speech About Nothing.
Someone else who stands out from the crowd is John Cage. In 1952, he “composed” a piece called 4′ 33″ – a recording of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. This wasn’t merely a reel of blank tape re-packaged as a song – Cage brought an entire orchestra into the studio, and conducted the piece while they sat there and simply didn’t play their instruments. When I first read about it, I thought it was the most moronic idea in the history of composing, but now I finally understand it (at least in this context). John Cage had the courage to embrace what the rest of us assiduously avoid – the concept of nothingness in a society full of “stuff”. He was brave enough to acknowledge it, experience it, and then invite us to experience it with him for several minutes. Here is a live performance of 4′ 33″.
There is an ebb and flow in the world and in our lives: each day has periods of light and darkness; we are awake for 16 hours and then we sleep for eight. Each month we can observe a full moon and a new moon. As you begin this year, resolve to at least recognize the absence of things in your life, and visualize how they can actually make your existence richer. Then, if you’re adventurous enough, vanquish your fear of nothingness and enjoy the silent moments, unstructured free time, and even the advantages of living a simpler existence.