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You know that approach to seeing life as a glass that’s half full, half empty or both? What does it mean when there’s nothing in the glass?
There’s a lot to be said for nothing. The experience of emptiness, I mean. After all, it’s the empty glass that’s ready to be filled. The empty glass is receptive; it’s expectant. How I love the metaphor of being open.
Then there’s the other emptiness. What I don’t like about it is that it shows up in unexpected places, in ways we can’t control. It would be different if I could schedule private time to feel awkward, insecure and disconnected, but it just so happens that before I can get around to planning for it, I’ve already put my foot in it for pretty much everyone to see. And that doesn’t do much for making me feel connected. Maybe you’re familiar with this experience?
Emptiness likes to make its appearance when we feel alone or isolated. It can show up in a crowded room and entice us to judge, compare, withdraw and count up the differences between us and them. Emptiness scrapes us dry from the inside out, and it can expand like a void in space when it really revs up. To make much ado about nothing, emptiness drains away our hope and optimism, leaving us parched, bleak and despairing.
The good news is emptiness isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all if we give it a chance to soften and change us.
It was two days ago. I’d pulled an all-nighter on a work project the day before. I was exhausted, down for the count. My task had overwhelmed me and put me in a sleeper hold; I was just about beat and I knew it. In the weeks prior, I’d paced the carpet down to a nub and bit my nails back to the quick. I pulled out every last lick of hair and chanted the great lamentations. I hurled myself to the floor in fits of consternation. Then, against every pitiful instinct in me, I met my friend LA for an afternoon run. I pulled into the dusty lot, relieved to see the smile on her face. Preparing to launch into the details of my despair, I began with, I’m running on empty. I got nothing. I swallowed hard.
LA let me talk on for ten minutes or more. As we stretched our limbs and our muscles warmed, I ran on about the rigors of creativity, the precious nerves it burns, and the isolation it often entails. I explained to her that this is what happens when we’ve got nothing left and we’re nowhere near the finish. I’m really not sure how to move past this, I said. But I just know I have to. She nodded as we jogged east. With the first mile behind us, I fell quiet and settled into the crunch of gravel underfoot.
We slowed heading south and then slowed some more before I noticed I wasn’t panting like I usually was by that point. LA winced, rubbed her knee and stopped. I’m really sorry about this, she said, but I’m scared I might have an injury.
LA is a serious runner. The day before we met for our run, she’d completed a twenty five mile training loop in preparation for an upcoming fifty mile race that’s going to be held at an altitude of more than fourteen thousand feet. Boulder rests at an altitude of barely six thousand feet.
As she stretched and massaged her leg, LA told me how hard it was to carry on in the rain and cold of the previous day and that she’d gotten so soaked, she had to double back home after thirteen miles to change into dry clothes and hit the road again. She told me how depleted she was after hitting a wall at the eighteenth mile and wondered how she’d go on. That’s when, I shit you not, she said, a running mate appeared. She’d literally run into a friendly jogger who also happened to be a coach from out of town and was looking for route suggestions. They wound up running together and she got the surprise support she needed in the moment.
For the next three miles we cycled in and out of running, all the while sharing our stories of fatigue and depletion. We related our experiences of isolation and the irony of sometimes despising what we loved to do most. We acknowledged the deliciousness of victory after a long fight and the daily challenge of closing gaps between excuses and the execution of hard work.
Do you know what it’s like to let yourself be emptied and not run from the sight of what’s left? It’s not an easy thing; that’s why I ask. Harder still is to bring that emptiness to another person and trust her enough—or maybe that’s trust yourself or life enough—to let her in on it. I don’t know which was more difficult for me: the uphill run or admitting how utterly gutted I’d been feeling before.
As we neared the parking lot my sense of connection had begun to return where, barely an hour before, I thought it was all I could do to tie my running shoes. Something unexpected happened that day. We each risked letting the other see what we look like in our most vulnerable places—and we reached the finish better than when we started. For me, it was a welcomed renewal of mind, body, and spirit. I showed up literally with nothing to lose and it was just what I needed to fill me up again.
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