Does Emotional Emptiness Have Meaning?

A moving letter on the power of art on the empty space inside us.

Posted Sep 20, 2017

Elisha Christian, Courtesy Superlative Films and Depth of Field
Haley Lu Richardson in the film "Columbus"
Source: Elisha Christian, Courtesy Superlative Films and Depth of Field

From Bill Gates to Michael Jordan to J.K Rowling, much fuss has been made on the value of failure in the pursuit of success. I take no offense to this. Having collected a pretty spectacular array of failures in my three decades, they have been some of my greatest teachers; they also occasionally make me funny at dinner parties.

The side effects of failure are an equally popular topic. Celebrities, award-winners and politicians alike recall the depths of their sorrow, disappointment, and shame during periods of failure in laundry-list-like fashion. No matter who it is and what that person is now doing quite successfully, the message I get is this: Keep failing and learning and everything will work out.

This narrative is true enough. And when it’s not completely true, it’s at least better than the alternative (fail, learn nothing, repeat), but it’s been bothering me lately. As the world becomes more connected, vocal and social, people have access to more information, journalism, and knowledge about the challenges we face in America and globally to get ahead—and what we’re learning isn’t encouraging us. More people are talking about and studying the crisis of anxiety, indifference, and disillusionment with the elusive fog of success. An article outlining a Harvard University study last year reported that the “crisis of democratic legitimacy is stark” especially among Millennials and increasing in almost all populations in the U.S. and Europe. Last month, CBS News reported that “8.3 million American adults—about 3.4 percent of the U.S. population—suffer from serious psychological distress, an evaluation of federal health data,” according to the journal Psychiatric Services.

As someone born straddling Generation X and the Millennials, I see my contemporaries struggling with a much deeper and wider a chasm: an inner emptiness. Long-term studies of college students over the past five decades paint a clear picture of increasing levels of depression in young adults, and data supports that young women in this demographic are increasingly affected by poverty and suicide.

What this suggests to me is that we need fewer pep talks about “failing upwards” and more discussion about not giving up entirely. Do I think we’re living in a post-traumatic-success era? Not exactly, but I don’t think the promise of rags to riches, nameless to a bestseller, unknown to an American Idol, is very useful right now.

Individuals have become more cynical, more depressed and, in turn, stifled from taking steps to do much of anything, let alone succeed, or better yet, fail. Success and failure require action, drive, and a desire to achieve something. It’s hard to do anything at all in a state of meaninglessness. What narrative do we give to all the people who are faced with the ever-widening landscape—not of failure or success—but of emptiness?

What advice do I suppose will have meaning to someone who is having trouble finding any? If there’s anything I’ve learned from my own failures to give good advice, it’s this: I don’t give it. Instead, I share what worked for me. Then it’s not advice. It’s just my own experience.

In the darkest points of my life, I went to art. I watched it on film. I read it in books. I saw it on stage. I tried my best to make my own. Most times I failed, but it felt good to try. And even when it didn’t feel good, and even when I didn’t succeed, the attempt felt meaningful.

The other day, my father sent me a letter that the filmmaker Kogonada wrote about a recent movie he made, Columbus, about two people at two very different points in their lives, both struggling with paralyzing emotions:

“Is there meaning in the emptiness? Or is it simply a lack that must be endured?  Or, worse, an abyss? Can absence really make the heart grow fonder? Are byes ever good? What are we to make of this specter of nothingness?

Brett Warren, Courtesy Superlative Films and Depth of Field
Filmmaker Kogonada
Source: Brett Warren, Courtesy Superlative Films and Depth of Field

In art, negative space has value. The relationship between absence and presence is vital—each revealing the other.

I’ve admittedly wondered at times if art really matters, if architecture matters, if cinema matters—if these are not merely decorations to distract us from everyday life. And then I’ll remember…

I was nine once staring at the blankness of my ceiling and feeling that I might be swallowed up by nothingness. Later, I’d experience life in the dark, here and there, as if I’d already fallen halfway into the abyss.

And art mattered to me then. It altered me. It gave me space to breathe and question. It changed my sense of the world. It made me mindful of others. It shaped my politics. It revealed that nothingness might be somethingness.”

I appreciated the film, but his motivations for making it, outlined in his letter, resonated with me even more. It reminded me that I still rely on writers, artists, and playwrights to make sense of the world and inspire me to find meaning where I thought I’d find sadness and indifference, to find value in the shadows of grief, to find beauty in the wreckage pain leaves in its wake.

Success and failure are good teachers, but bad masters, and neither one is a constant. But meaning, no matter where I go, how hard things get, or what direction life takes, like a best friend, can always be with me.

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