When I have nothing to do, I encounter The Nothing.
You may remember it from the film The Neverending Story. It is the embodiment of annihilation, portrayed as a menacing black wolf.
It terrified me in nightmares as a child. As an adult, I experience it in my waking hours, whenever I am waiting, or listless, or have no plans.
It is my fear of insignificance. My fear of being forgotten. Of having missed my moment or the right turn to realize a dream.
Some people experience contentment having nothing to do. One of my friends, Drew, says you should have one night a week where you give yourself permission to do nothing. For most 9–5 working Americans, this might be called Sunday. But as a recent freelancer, I have no set schedule. No recurring pattern to stabilize my week. Instead, I have this and that to do every day. Without a clear day off or — god forbid — a set vacation, I don’t know how to relax and recover. I only feel like I am fulfilling my gig-gig life when I am in the persuit of creating or accomplishing something.
And so I check my email constantly. Like I’m hungry and the attention I get from someone reaching out to me gives me sustenance…and a hit of dopamine. It gives me a moment to forget the emptiness waiting for me when I am idle.
The Nothing waits for me. It is always there, underneath my busyness.
How do I beat The Nothing?
In the movie, the hero Atreyu had to face and kill the beast. In the real world, I usually just avoid it. I do yoga. I try to meditate. I write songs and stories. I think of fun comedy bits. I read mostly short stories. I take day trips to Korean spas. I half-heartedly go to the gym. I play with my dog. I go to gay bathhouses. I make coffee and lunch and brunch and dinner dates with friends. I escape with exotic trips to Bali.
Notice all of these solutions involve Doing something. That’s because:
I am a Do-er.
I Do all the time
I’d rather Be.
But Beings beyond
What I can do.
So I Do
When I’m done,
Till I do some more.
I wish I didn’t.
I won’t do anymore
I mean it.
But I don’t
I wish for
I’m gonna Do
Myself to death.
I fear the toll all this Doing is taking on me, and I know I can’t run forever. Is there a way I could make The Nothing my friend? My ally? So that I wasn’t at war with it? Could idle time become a chance to simply reaffirm and restore myself?
The few times I have felt at peace doing nothing required a week of non-stimulation in a setting outside of my home in New York City. It required me to completely disentangle myself from all my attachments and give myself ample time to slow down.
But I don’t want to have to travel the world relentlessly or live in a monestary like a monk to survive my own mind. I want to find a way to find peace in New York City, rolling with the uncertainties of my freelance life.
So I tried to face The Nothing in therapy today. I slowed down in my therapist’s chair and got in touch with it. It didn’t actually resemble a wolf. It looked like a scared child.
The first emotion I felt was avoidance. Do something to avoid this pain. It was the voice of an adult telling me to Do so I didn’t have to Feel. Telling the child to achieve in order to feel self-worth. I even tried to escape by thinking of what I would transcribe of the experience for this Medium article — trying to jump into the future and out of the present moment.
But I kept still. The second emotion I encountered was exhaustion. Wanting to sleep as a way to rest and recover. The flight from this fear has taken a toll on my zest for life. And sleep is an escape — a respite from feeling worry and anxiety.
I stayed awake. The third thing I felt was the pain itself. It felt like a heavy yet buoyant buoy rising from my stomach to my throat, hot and hurt.
I got misty-eyed with my therapist, but I did not cry. Yet. Our session came to a close. It is clear that no medication or occupation is going to remove The Nothing from my life. I will have to still myself and feel it, raw and tender. The only way out is through.