Our Lives Revolve Around Filling Voids
We do it because nature contains no vacuum
I got my molars removed surgically a few weeks back. The procedure left a massive crater on each side where the tooth and bone used to be. After some time, the flesh surrounding it expanded and grew to fill the hole. And it made me think back on something that was life-changing for me.
A year ago, when I left a very difficult marriage and moved out, the emptiness that came with being alone was overwhelming. I would come home to my apartment, filled with an excruciating sense of lack. From what previously used to be coming home to my husband and son, the absence of both in the new place can not be over-stated. When I felt this way I would have this really strong urge to text, call or meet my husband and son, despite each of those meetings turning sour and leaving me crying my heart out later. I discussed this with my therapist asking why I kept going through that cycle despite knowing it needed to stop. He said something so clarifying that the words stick with me till today. He said,
“As humans, we need to fill our spaces, even if that’s with conflict. Which is why conflict seems better than an empty space to you.”
It struck me so hard. The emptiness, the urge to meet, the wanting to avoid loneliness. It was all coming from a place of wanting to fill that void. There was always some sort of hustle going on before, whether that was arguments on the very tiniest of things or logistics for the care of my son, but in short, the day was always full. And now, since it was just me, there was an abundance of nothingness. The absence of things to do. And as a human, I was trying to fill that absence with what was familiar to me, conflict. The filling of spaces is the same principle on which all wound-healing works, which brings us back to the body filling the void left in place of my molars.
The principal of filling voids applies to all things in life if you think about it. Alcoholism, addiction, harmful habits. We try to fill a gap where something was or should be, with something else. We sometimes call it avoidance, but it’s actually not. It’s stuffing the holes in our lives.
After breakups, people find rebound relationships. A person mourning a death may start spending extra long hours at work. Self-destructive behaviours — such as smoking and drinking — arise out of the same need, to fill spaces left after certain events. And ironically, healing therapies work on the same principle.
Smokers are told to chew gum or hold something in their hands to fill the empty space of a cigarette. Alcoholics are told to find other activities that will fill the time in which they would usually be drinking. It also applies to the smaller things. Like while sitting in a waiting room, you try to ‘fill in’ the time by flipping through magazines, not really reading anything. Or fidgeting through your phone when something is downloading.
As humans, we hate empty spaces in which nothing is happening. In nature, and in physics, empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural. Aristotle was right when he said,
Nature abhors a vacuum
In my case, once I understood what the underlying psyche was, I could address the situation better. I started channeling my energies to more productive ways to fill that emptiness where my marriage once used to be. In the beginning I started being around friends all the time. I was avoiding being alone so much that the only time I would have privacy was in the bathroom. That soon became a very tiring way of coping.
Since life was going to be pretty much empty in the short term, I figured it was important for me to become comfortable with being alone. I used the new-found time to ask myself the hard questions, and answer them honestly. To come to terms with what had happened and why. I had periods of solitude, balanced by the company of friends when needed. But there were times when being alone was the worst I could have done (and did do). Solitude and loneliness lie on opposite ends of the spectrum of ‘being alone.’
Solitude allows you to understand yourself. Loneliness leaves you feeling like you’re in a suffocating prison. Both are very different responses to the same exterior circumstance; of being alone.
For if in solitude, as Wendell Berry memorably wrote, “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives,” in loneliness one’s inner scream becomes deafening, deadening, severing any thread of connection to other lives. -Quote from Brainpickings.org
You must stay aware of which side of the spectrum you’re on. If your alone time is giving you a sense of hollowness, fill your void with activities which involve the company of others.
From a stronger sense of self that came from the solitude, I started working on activities I had enjoyed previously but had had no time to work on over the past few years. I started writing and running. And after a year now, I can say that void has been filled with healthier things.
For all that you’re doing and where you’re going, reflect on what void you’re trying to fill and how. Are you just stuffing it to avoid the discomfort that comes with being empty? Or are you filling it with something that is meaningful? Since all empty spaces will eventually be filled, make a conscious effort to embrace the space and figure out what you want to put in it. May our lives be a beautiful patchwork of filled spaces.