The Emptiness

Originally published by The Guy Code on January 22, 2002.

Take a moment now and listen to your insides – the place where your soul may be, in the event that you have one.

Does it seem empty in there?

Does your life, or life in general, sometimes seem hollow – less substantive or fulfilling than you had hoped?

If not, God bless you. You can skip this essay altogether.

If you do feel it, though – and if you suspect that others feel it as well — how do you deal with it?

And while we’re on the subject: Do you think people today are emptier than they used to be?

Jack Finney thought so. The late author of the wonderfully scary “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” also left behind the sweet, nostalgic “Time and Again” when he shook loose this mortal coil. I just read the latter book, and it got me thinking.

At first Simon Morley, the narrator of “Time and Again,” takes the emptiness in his life for granted. When a man from the government asks Si to consider putting his life on hold in order to join a grand experiment, Si contemplates the friends he has, the woman he’s seeing, the occasional idle evening he spends. He thinks about his work as an illustrator at an ad agency, and concludes that it “wasn’t precisely what I’d had in mind when I went to art school in Buffalo, but I didn’t know either just what I did have in mind then, if anything.”

As he considers the offer further, he decides that, “all in all, there wasn’t anything wrong with my life. Except that, like most everyone else’s I knew about, it had a big gaping hole in it, an enormous emptiness, and I didn’t know how to fill it or even know what belonged there.”

Si finds an unlooked-for cure for all that emptiness in the past – not by dwelling on it, but by actually going there. He travels in time back to the New York of 1882, and he sees faces that are alive with anticipation.

“Today’s faces are different,” he insists, and by “today” he means “New York at the end of the twentieth century.” “They are much more alike and much less alive. On the streets of the [1880s] I saw human misery, as you see it today; and depravity, hopelessness, and greed; and in the faces of small boys on the streets I saw the premature hardness you now see in the faces of boys from Harlem. But there was also an excitement in the streets of New York in 1882 that is gone now.” You could look at people’s eyes, he said, and “see the pleasure they felt at being outdoors, in the winter, in a city they liked.” The men moving along may have been greedy or anxious like the men of today, but “they weren’t bored, for God’s sake! Just looking at them, I’m convinced that those men moved through their lives in unquestioned certainty that there was a reason for being. And that’s something worth having . . . “

Losing the certainty

Have we lost that certainty in our day?

Did we get some of it back when the World Trade Center towers went down? Did that extra layer of terror and grief restore to us a sense of purpose, in addition to patriotism?

I think it probably did. Whether it will last is, of course, not for me to say.

In America we have the luxury of disconnection. We don’t need to be attached to a religion or a group or a leader if we don’t want to be. That’s nice in many ways, but the lack of connection — aka freedom — can also lead to a seemingly endless number of empty moments.

Richard Ford notices them, too. In his novel “The Sporstwriter,” protagonist Frank Bascombe keeps track of empty moments the way gamblers keep track of cards. Toward the end of the novel, Bascombe finds a temporary cure, which is apparently all that he, and we, can hope for.

The cure becomes evident as he waits for a young woman, a stranger, to join him for a sandwich.

Frank’s been married and divorced, lost a son, and just went through a breakup with a woman somewhat older than the young thing for whom he now waits. It’s not at all clear what will happen with this one, but he hopes something will:

“I hear her feet slip-skip down the carpeted corridor . . .” he says. “And there is no nicer time on earth than now – everything in the offing, nothing gone wrong, all potential . . . This is really all life is worth, when you come down to it.”

For her part, Carly Simon complained of too much anticipation. She said that a habit of looking always to the future instead of the present was making her late – that it was keeping her way-ay-ay-ay-yeah-ay-ee-ting.

Finney sought salvation in the past. Ford says we can find it in the future, if we look hard enough and keep our expectations low. Simon is sure that we can escape our emptiness by living in the present — just now, right this moment — if we can just figure out how to do it.

By now it’s probably obvious that this essay isn’t saying much, really. Just trying to fill an empty moment with ruminations about empty moments. Thinking about people who try to beat the emptiness with the past, the future, and the present.

Who’s right? Only time will tell.

And now, back to you.

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