Nothing: an essential element of transformation
As anyone can tell you, it’s a short step from asking the question: “What does it all mean?” to arriving at the inevitable answer: “Nothing.” Meaning is constructed by each of us after our own fashion, our own nature; there is no universal formula. At first, such a realization can lead to dismay: what follows is the understanding that, given meaning is neither fixed nor universal, but rather determined by how we see it, what we say. True, there is a world out there that would compel us to conform, to consume, to render unto Caesar. But we are, nevertheless, free to resist, free to create, free to furnish our lives with meanings we invent. Henry Miller remarked that “life has to be given meaning because of the obvious fact that is has no meaning.” He also said that “the aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware” leaving each of us with the capacity to invest life with all the intangible wealth that we can scarcely begin to imagine.*
We witness our construction of reality when we realize that we habitually assign meaning to nearly everything and then operate as if those meanings were “really real” and independent of ourselves. Because we’re wired to perceive everything as meaningful, this encounter with nothing can be difficult. “Nothing” puts us face-to-face with the malleability of our meanings—those that define us and our relationships with the world, and that we have held as fundamental to healthy human living. To encounter nothing as a freedom, we have to pass through and beyond our natural resistance to the very idea. Nothing, or non-being, is the other side of being; and just as we cannot fully understand light until we have experienced dark, a full openness to what’s available in being human calls for an equivalent openness to nothing—an essential element of transformation. Nothing is the foundation for possibility, and in creating possibility, we get to know what’s possible in being human.
*Adapted from John Burnside, The Big Question: What’s the Point? (Intelligent Life magazine, 2014)
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