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Smile Upon Emptiness

It feels strange that, these days, I don’t have enough time in a day. In my 20′s, I hated being awake because I didn’t know what to do with all the time I had. Going to work was almost like a relief because I could take my mind off the emptiness that caused me a lot of pain. As soon as I got home, I would call and meet some of my friends who lived near me. On weekends, I used to take a walk to the nearby park and sit on a bench for a long time. Sometimes I brought a book with me, but I would often sit there just staring at the tree in front of me.

One Sunday afternoon, I had lunch with my friend Sharon and her artist friend from Ireland who was staying in New York for several months on some sort of residency program. I felt a bit intimidated by her because she seemed so busy. Towards the end of our lunch, she mentioned the things she had to take care of that day. She then left in a hurry. I was completely puzzled at the time: How could someone (especially someone who has no kids) have so many things to do? Where are they coming from? I felt ashamed that I had nothing to do that day.

As a way to kill my time, I used to invite my friends over to my apartment to take portrait photos of them. One girl talked about how busy she was, and assumed that I was just as busy as she was. She said she didn’t have enough time to see all of her friends. I had the opposite problem: I didn’t have enough friends to fill up my empty time.

I think it was around this time that I read an interview with John McCain in which he talked about how he spent his time in a Vietnamese prison. Even though there was nothing to do, he deliberately created things to do. He would schedule specific tasks to be done at specific times in a day. Various mental and physical exercises. Soon enough, he said, there weren’t enough hours in a day. I found his story fascinating. It reminded me of a friend who had no job (still doesn’t to this day) but somehow managed to complain that he didn’t have enough hours in a day. He too had routines that he filled his day with.

I also remember my wife (girlfriend at the time) was quite busy too. She had a job but only worked a few days a week. She was living in a cheap apartment, so she didn’t have to work much to cover the rent. She was obsessed about keeping her calendar full. At the time, I felt like she was filling a calendar to keep herself busy, not that she needed to keep a calendar to manage her genuinely busy life. If she had stopped filling her calendar, she would have probably realized that she wasn’t actually busy. It was very much like what John McCain was doing in prison.

Ultimately, there isn’t anything any of us really need to do in life. There is no need to have kids either. If we just have to take care of ourselves, we could get away with doing very little, especially in a developed country like ours. But empty time is scary and painful, because it forces our attention on ourselves. What we are scared of isn’t actually the emptiness but ourselves. Having children conveniently solves this problem. Not only our time would be filled with things we have to do to support our families, but also our attention could be directed to our children, away from ourselves.

So, in my 20s, I deliberately did nothing. It was obvious that I was afraid of emptiness, so I needed to confront it. At one point, I got rid of everything I didn’t need in my apartment, including most of my books, videos, and CDs. My apartment was practically empty. My bedroom had a futon on the floor and nothing else. It’s strange to think about it but emptiness is truly painful. 10 seconds of silence is awkward in a conversation; even 30 seconds is already painful. A large white wall with nothing hanging on it is awkward too, especially if you have to wait there for a long time for something. This is why elevators have music, and galleries sell things to hang on walls. A lot of money and effort go into avoiding silence and emptiness.

I eventually drove myself crazy. I was at war with emptiness, and it was thoroughly exhausting. When everything around you is empty and silent, all you hear is a relentless flood of your own thoughts. There is nothing to block or divert that flood. You feel beaten down like a boxer laying flat on a boxing ring. And, your thoughts become louder and louder as your surroundings become emptier and quieter. Your thoughts trigger physiological reactions, so your body too becomes tense and fatigued.

One night, I was sitting at my desk with my face down, feeling exhausted and defeated. I asked myself why I was suffering so much. I had read many books on philosophy and psychology, debated endlessly with some of my friends, and I thought and thought and thought until I felt my brain was going to explode. I asked: “Why am I in so much pain?” I then looked up, and saw the smiling face of John Cage on the back cover of the book that was sitting on my desk. At that moment, something snapped in me, and a different voice within me said, “Because you are thinking.”

When we feel scared, out of habit, we try to do something about it with our thoughts, because we have come to assume that problems are to be solved by thinking. But the problem of emptiness, or the existential problem of self, cannot be solved by thinking, not because we are not smart enough but because we are trying to solve it with something that actually creates the very problem.

There is something magical about human smile. (I suppose “human smile” is redundant as no other species smile.) When we are trying to solve a problem by thinking, our physiological reaction is tension, and the tension feeds further thinking, creating a feedback loop. Often a smile or laughter is the only thing that can break the vicious cycle. My life had been getting increasingly more painful up to that moment. Looking back, I can point to that moment as the lowest point of my life. Then my life turned around. I started buying things for my apartment again, like a proper bed, tables and chairs. I was lucky that I didn’t throw away that book of John Cage with the other books I threw out. I sometimes wonder what my life would’ve been like now if that book weren’t on my desk at that moment.