Life is All the Negative Space Surrounding Orgasms and Belly Laughs
Some people believe really hard that God is out there. These people likely think God is smiling down on them while they dig through the bin of $5 DVDs for something worthy of wasting two hours of His Precious Time.
People never give negative space its proper due. We in our Western genius have a hard time thinking of nothingness as having value. We see the ocean is mostly empty and decide it’s fine to dump our trash in it. We see an empty field and cut it up into subdivisions. The Market God deplores a vacuum.
A human who would prefer nothing to something certainly isn’t a customer.
The whole conceit of marketing is to make you recklessly uncomfortable with the negative space wrapped around all the free joy life has to offer. Love wouldn’t feel so precious if we just fell for everyone. Friendship wouldn’t feel so healing if just everyone could make us feel heard. No joy is as pure and as real as that of a dog that hasn’t seen its human for days.
We need the negative space to realize joy. Happiness is a thing that spontaneously erupts when we create the optimal conditions for it to happen — when we’re mindful, present and listening to the people in our lives for the chance occasion that the person you love might burp while crying or fart while yelling at you. People are hysterical.
Happiness finds a way of happening to us when we’re ready to receive it. But making yourself ready to receive it means getting comfortable with its absence.
But if we were all to become instantly patient with nothing and contented with less, we wouldn’t be breaking ourselves to keep the wheel of pain moving to crush the next generation. Who would then be willing to clean all the bathrooms in all the burger chains at all the freeway exits from here to straight on nowhere forever if we all just stopped giving a fuck, gave everyone what they needed to live and learned to chill for a fucking minute?
If you’re like me, you’ve been trained in a Protestant-tinged ethic that the only way to find meaning in life is through hard work, drive and passion. If you’re really like me, you probably never quite found your one passion because you realized at some point in 20+ years of school that you kinda like everything and so think spending the rest of your life cleaning one freeway exit toilet, no matter how prestigiously people describe your toilet, is a slow, boring death sentence.
I used to feel a lot of shame about not finding my thing. I spent a lot of my childhood hoping that in my adulthood I would escape the gravity of my mother’s poverty. I, like many others like me, put happiness on the backburner. I delayed gratification until after I felt I had securitized my life. For me, this meant I did not as a child expect to become happy until I had graduated from college, secured a high-paying job and married the man with whom I would start a family.
I couldn’t think about being happy, you see. Happiness would have to come much later, after I secured the basics. And some of these things happened. Some didn’t. But once I felt safe enough to finally become happy — I couldn’t! I was miserable! My entire life I had prepared for this moment like a kid holding her nose before jumping into the pool. But then when I got ready to jump, I couldn’t find the water! I was so ashamed!
But my mistake was just assuming everyone else had this figured out. That I alone was this wholly incapable of being happy. But you know, spoiler alert, it turned out that no one was really happy.
The media complains constantly about Millennials and their chronic screen-addiction. Older generations can’t understand why we’re always scrolling through our apps. Most seem to want desperately to chalk this up to some moral pandemic. Cold War Boomers are nothing if not simply obsessed with creating out-groups for their 2-minute hate.
But I’m pretty sure most of my peers are glued to screens because we’re uncomfortable with the negative space between texts from people we love. It’s not being on the phone that makes us happy. We live for those “I love yous” and “I miss yous” and everything else is just nonsense that passes the time in between.
We can’t make that cute guy we just met text us back when we want. We can’t force our wives to deliver to us our happy fix. You have to wait.
And the apps we’re addicted to are just exploiting us in the in-between.
The things you want most in the world are the things you can’t control. You can’t determine when someone else falls in love with you. You can’t make your kids stay young forever. You can’t even make other people happy. Not really. At best, you can give a lover orgasms and belly laughs but you know as well as I do that the hard part of love is navigating all the negative space between what’s easy.
So becoming comfortable with the blank space means getting comfortable with our inability to make happy happen. Happiness has its own schedule. It doesn’t really care what you want. There is no correlation between how badly you want to be happy and the frequency and severity of its occurrence. In all your efforts to make happiness happen in your life, how many have succeeded?
But oh! We feel so bad waiting for happiness to happen, don’t we? We feel if we aren’t spontaneously happy, then we must be sad. We must do something to make ourselves happy in the in-betweens. And so instead of waiting for happiness, we fish in a lukewarm sea of likes and hearts and wonder why none of it is what we’re really after.
Isn’t it unsettling to know that the most profitable businesses of our time exist to capitalize from our well-known discomfort with the negative space between us and love? It’s like they know that the farther we pull apart from each other, the more space we have to fill with apps and prestige TV!
It’s like we’ve surrendered our negative space — the space where happiness erupts — to the appmakers, letting our in-betweens flood with the tepid substitute of like for want of love.
A big part of becoming a Buddhist in my twenties was learning to become more comfortable with the empty spaces between my rare joys. I learned to stop looking for it out there and accept it when it happens in the now. I’m not great at this, no, but from time to time, I remember. The best I can do with my one precious life is set the table for happiness and invite it when it shows up to stay as long as it can.
For me, this means working to keep that table clear of clutter and distraction. I quit Facebook years ago. I walk around New York with earplugs in my ears so I can pay more attention to my prayers for what’s in front of me. I keep my phone permanently on the “do not disturb” setting. I try really fucking hard to sit zazen.
But this is my practice. I get flustered when people at meditation class ask me about my practice because so much of it has been just shutting shit off.
But that’s the dharma, isn’t it?
Shutting shit off is when we can find the truth in nothing.