Ex Nihilo, Let’s Go!

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“Try to think about absolutely nothing.  Go ahead, try it!”

It was my second year of university, and I was sitting in Ancient Greek philosophy class.  Our prof was covering Parmenides, and gave us this thought experiment to prove a point.  I remembered thinking, Aw, crap. Can’t do it. The point of the experiment was that no one can think of nothing (no double negatives intended here), but to a chronic over-doer like me, it was a snarky reminder from some long-dead dude in a toga.

I have always, and still do, have a hard time with nothing.  The fact that this particular lecture is so clear in my mind, even #@$% years later, suggests that it still smarts a little that I’m no good at it.

We’re fascinated with nothing.  The Italian phrase Dolce Far Niente means something like “the pleasure of doing nothing.” Shakespeare coughed up famous phrases like “Much ado about nothing” and “Sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  In the film Neverending Story, an evil force called The Nothing threatens to obliterate everything that exists.  There’s Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (not an easy weekend read, trust me). We whisper sweet nothings into our beloved’s ear.  We celebrate the fact that at some point in the history of mathematics, someone invented the zero. Parmenides may have been right in pointing out that it’s impossible to think about nothing, but when it comes to trying to get closer to it, do we crave it, or do we fear it?

I’ve been in parts of the world in which nothing is a more comfortable fit.  In Japan, we visited a temple that invited guests to walk around a pitch black path in the basement, guided only by a rope.  It was quiet and dark, and while walking, you could either savour nothing for a few precious minutes, or occupy yourself in wondering how far it was to the exit, and to daylight and the crowds outside.  Three guesses which category I fell into.

The first time my dearest and I visited Paris, we took a picture of our bare feet, submerged in the fountain in the Trocadero.  It had been a raging, busy year for us, and we enjoyed the novelty of sitting in cafes, without electronics, sipping tea and eating pastries.  We needed to document the fact that we’d dabbled in the Parisian version of nothing.  Our little piggies swimming in the fountain were the closest we’d been to nothing in a long time.

Blame it on rush-rush North American culture.  Blame it on the noisy, flashy, digital era in which we live.  Blame it on my waspy upbringing, which sees humans as being like sharks- likely to suffocate if we stop swimming.  Blame it on the swarm of jacked-up hummingbirds that live in my skull.  Whatever.  I still suck at nothing.

But I’m trying to get better at it.

Because when I lie down and stare at the ceiling, and then realize that half an hour has passed, it’s good.  Because looking at the calendar and finding it empty for the day is good.  Because a blank page can be as intriguing as it is scary.  Because, despite thousands of years of arguments to the contrary, quite often, from nothing comes some very interesting and important something.

Maybe Parmenides should have spent more time staring at his feet in a fountain.

I wish you all a whole lot of nothing.

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