Empty Classroom

What Nothing Taught Me

This post is part two of a three-part series. You can read part one here.

In October 2015, after devoting almost forty years to a trove of personal ambitions, I stopped. I picked up an eraser and wiped my slate clean. For the first time in my life, I was officially doing nothing.

This couldn’t last. I waited for the sheer mass of my beloved ideas to draw me back into their orbit. Resisting that pull would exhaust me, I was sure of it. I braced myself for a long night of frustrated temptation and anxiety.

That night never came. Rather, contrary to my deepest intuitions, I found that doing nothing felt exactly like doing everything, but without the daily dose of self-prescribed guilt and stress.

To be clear, I wasn’t idle. I engaged in many of the same activities after my commitment to “Nothing” as before. Maybe that seems odd. It was strange to me, certainly. At times, I felt like I was cheating, violating my own rules. The real nature of what I had done wasn’t apparent to me until a coworker asked what I was up to these days: What was I working on? Without thinking much about it, I answered, “Nothing.”

And then it struck me: I had no long-term commitments, no zealous goals. Nothing drove me forward. For the first time since my early youth, I wasn’t linking each moment’s microdecisions to some over-idealized vision of my future. Each day stood entirely on its own.

In the weeks and months that followed, my stress levels plummeted. I slept well. Time spent with family and friends wasn’t burdened by a contrived need to do something else, something “productive”. It was liberating.

Sunrise in the Flowering Valley

As my health and habits improved, the haze in my mind lifted, burning off like a morning fog. Moments of piercing clarity began to arrive at all hours and in all places: during my evening writing sessions, in the shower, and on my morning drive to work. Sometimes they sidled casually up to me as I dawdled in the kitchen, wondering whether to have coffee today, or tea?

But they only ever came out of silence and solitude. They never came as I watched a movie or played a game, never while I was working or socializing.

I’m a comfortable, confident introvert. All my life, I’ve enjoyed quiet—or what I thought was quiet. It’s more accurate to say I’ve enjoyed stimulus-free zones, close quarters where I can control the noise and activity around me.

I never realized how much noise came from within, how much clamor and chaos I carried around in my head.

You’ve probably had a moment like this: You’re sitting in what you think is a perfectly quiet room. No one is talking, there’s no radio or TV. You are immersed in supposed silence. And then the A/C turns off, or the fridge stops running. Your neighbor finishes mowing her lawn. A deep wave of silence rushes in, and you find you now hear clocks ticking, the bathroom faucet dripping. Your cat walks down the hall and you hear the soft click of his claws against the hardwood floor.

A thick blanket of sound has been removed. You may not have known it was even there, not because it was quiet, but because it was constant.

All my life I maintained a strong vision of my future. It was a private film I played in my head, populated by a cast of big ideas and lofty ambitions. They were a desperate, needy lot; prima donnas one and all. Every one of them fought for my exclusive attention. They jabbered day and night, promising bright futures, threatening abject failure. I grew so accustomed to their incessant din, I couldn’t hear them anymore.

And then they were gone. I stood alone on the abandoned stage, surprisingly glad of their absence. In the welcome stillness, I heard other, softer voices, and I realized what had driven me to this point.

Empty Stage

My ideas are intrinsic to my identity, my sense of self. When I let go of an idea, I’m saying goodbye to a future me, along with all the potential that vision held. It’s akin to losing hope. Letting go of an idea doesn’t just feel bad, it feels wrong.

I dread reaching the end of my days only to look back and see a long list of unrealized plans, all the many things I could have done but didn’t. But that scenario isn’t just a possibility. It isn’t even enough to say it’s probable: it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. It does no good to think otherwise.

All those years, I wasn’t being ambitious. I was being stubborn and unrealistic. Above all, I was living in unconscious denial of my mortality. There’s so much I want to do, so many different people I imagine I could be. I can’t do it all, not the way I want.

Frankly, that bugs the hell out of me.

We’re all presented with possibilities. We all have to choose. I’ve spent my life under the delusion that I could somehow thwart that choice, and in the process I’ve denied myself the chance to become any of the people I imagined.

I’ve wasted too much time in this conflicted state, blind and deaf to my self-made circumstances. Six months of “Nothing” gave me the space and perspective to see where I stood, to understand better how I arrived there.

And also, to see the path ahead.

This is part two of a three-part series. You can read part 3 here.


The empty classroom image featured on this post is an altered version of a photo by Xavier. Both this altered image and the original photo are licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The image depicting sunrise in a flowering valley is an altered version of a photo by Nameless_One and is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The image of an empty stage at the Hamar Kulturhus is an altered version of a photo by Flemming Ibsen and is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.


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