Friday, July 19, 2013

A Taxonomy of Naught

Not all nothing is the same. First, some terms: Nothing, Mystery, Lack, Absence, Finitude, Emptiness, Space, Hole, Void, Freedom, Possibility, Silence.

I think it would be best to develop these terms by reference to some personal experiences.

The first set of experiences all relate to the question: Is there God?
For a long time I believed in and had a personal relationship with God. In the middle of some solitary prayer one day, the thought occurred to me that I might just be alone in a room, talking to myself. While years of theological study shaped my conceptual journey to atheism, this experience was the seed and, to today, the stuff of my disbelief.

I began calling myself a non-believer about three years ago, and in those three years my experience of “not-God” has evolved.

  1. Actually, for a long time before I lost faith I was captivated by the experience of mystery. After reading Kant in Div School, I recognized that there was no way to know if the furthest reaches of my metaphysical knowledge constituted a boundary (implying something beyond) or a limit (implying an absolute end).  While Rabbi Heschel tells us that the experience of ineffable mystery implies a transcendent presence, I feel like we can only honestly say that this mystery calls attention to our ultimate ignorance. There may be “something” “in” the mystery, but I can go no further than mystery. Related term: Finitude.
  2. At first upon becoming a nonbeliever, I experienced a lack. This is the kind of naught I experience when I actually wish there were something there. I yearned for that personal relationship with God, and instead felt that my yearning was reaching out into… nothing. I felt a space, a space created by my need, left empty by the lack of something to fill that need. Related term: Absence – implies the failure of a need for presence.
  3. Eventually the yearning for a personal relationship dissipated, but a feeling of emptiness remained, and this involves in some part the emptythrone. I don’t feel this emptiness all the time, but rather only when my philosophy or other passions seem to require an absolute. I seek for meaning in life, and am reminded that meanings exist, but no single absolute or inherent meaning. I seek for value and purpose in my life, and am reminded that value and purpose are human pursuits, not cosmic installations. So, empty doesn’t mean bad or depressing, it just means… well, I think that will get developed more in the next section.

Related terms: Space, Possibility, Freedom.

The second set of experiences all relate to the question: Who am I and what should I do?

These experiences are much more personal than the ones related to God, and thus harder to analyze. I’ll present all of them first, and then throw in some terms.

  1. I don’t remember the exact experience, but I know I was about 11 or 12, and one day I was bored, and emotionally overwhelmed by the internal demand to fill time. I became depressed—was life going to be this unending desperation, this nagging need to fill time and mind, in order to stave off worthlessness?
  2. I really enjoyed college and graduate school, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t make the most of my time there—I know this because of the inordinate amount of time I spent recreationally. I loved my studies and did my work passionately, but I never had a clear idea what I wanted to make of it as a profession.
  3. Now that I am somewhat on a career path, I don’t know exactly what or how much I want to make of myself professionally. I’m thinking about this in two different ways: (A) It’s almost impossible to be a full time heath teacher, so I need to expand my options—the most available (but unsuitable for me) option is teaching gym, and the most desirable (although not yet comprehensible) option is teaching English; and (B) How ambitious should I be? I see people “climb the ladder” from teacher to administrator, etc. I daydream about publishing a book and appearing on TV. How far should I go?

I think space, possibility, and freedom are functional in all of these stories. In my God-stories, there was a kind of void that could not ultimately be filled, whereas in my personal narrative, the emptiness is invested with possibility and freedom, and so experienced as a demand to be filled. The lack, in almost every case, is one of purpose or meaning. Something like ignorance or cluelessness is present to, as the question “What am I for, and what is my time worth?” hangs over every story.

During #1 and #2, these experiences were depressing. Now that I am living out #3, I take a more accepting and hopeful attitude. My future, even when I have a vision of it, is still a blank space that I slowly fill. It’s just the nature of becoming to have a “nothing” of space, possibility, and freedom before me.

I’ll stop here for now. Do check out parts two and three.

I almost called this post “God is empty, just like me” but it turns out that those appear to be pretty different kinds of emptiness.

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