VOICES: Running on Empty

Running on Empty
Elul 17, 5772 · September 4, 2012
When life seems to have no meaning

She says that she is running on empty. She says that there is vast, useless space inside of her. She looks the same on the outside. But things are subtly falling apart. She is bored literally to tears even though her schedule is full. She can't find meaning despite the rituals and beliefs that frame her days. She doesn't want to do anything, but she does everything anyway. She can't figure out where she went wrong when she was playing by all the rules.

She can't figure out where she went wrong when she was playing by all the rules
Lately she has become obsessed with the Wizard of Oz. As if she can't find her own way home. As if she would like someone to offer her a new heart, a new mind, or perhaps just the courage to change. But then she looks at me with eyes that are tired and frustrated at the same time, and she says: "But then I remember that in the end the wizard is just a tired, old man with a fake voice." She wonders though about the glittering, red shoes that Dorothy clicks together in the end. Maybe I should buy red shoes, she ventures.

And she does. She buys red shoes and shiny, black shoes. She buys new, fluffy towels and perfume so sweet it makes her choke. But the emptiness is still there. Suddenly, everywhere she goes, she feels like she doesn't belong. She is becoming a stranger in her own skin. Restless and exhausted at the same time. At night she can't sleep, and during the day she can hardly keep her eyes open.

Maybe you are depressed, I tell her. But no, she insists, I just don't see a purpose anymore in anything that I do. Well, that may actually be the definition of depression, I tell her. But she shakes her head. No, no. It's different. Everything in my life is okay. It's just that I can't figure out if my life really has a purpose.

One night we go out to dinner. I figure that maybe the change in scenery will cheer her up. It's a cozy café in Jerusalem, bathed in the golden light that has seeped into the stones throughout the long, hot day. She stares at the smokers by the window and tells me that she wishes that she could smoke. I glance at her in shock, but I try quickly to conceal it.

She, who has always been the good girl, the one who wouldn't even cut one class when we were in high school. She, who has never wanted anything except to have children and bake chocolate chip cookies. She was the one I depended upon to never change. To stay uncomplicated and satisfied, while I spent my whole life searching for abstract goals and steep mountains to climb.

But now she says that she wants a way to escape without really going anywhere. What is she trying to escape from? I ask her. She shakes her head. She doesn't know. I tell her that she is treading on a dangerous edge. What should I do, she asks me?

I want to pour all the simple answers onto the table and let them magically fix my friend's life. Or at least give her hope. Pray. Learn. Do good deeds. I want to tell her. There may not be a wizard who can automatically give your life purpose, but you do have a King and a Father who loves you and believes in you and created you for a reason. Beg Him to tell you what your life means.

But the words are stuck in my throat, because I am afraid that I will lose her right away. I don't think that she wants to hear any of those answers. So what does she want?

I remember a time in college when I felt stuck like she is now. I would stay up all night debating whether everything in life is essentially selfish. Whether life really has meaning. Whether marriage and children are worthy goals at all. But I had the luxury of time and space back then. She doesn't have either. But she needs to go through this somehow. How will I help her, I wonder, as I watch her staring at the group of smokers outside, blowing white, wispy illusions into the star-studded sky.

She is becoming a stranger in her own skin
As a psychologist, it is always humbling for me when I am faced with the struggles of those closest to me. It is so hard to think clearly when the other person's pain blurs into your own. So, as Elul begins, and I begin to struggle with my own character flaws, I beg G‑d to give me the right words, the right ideas to open a door for my friend.

I think about her husband and children. I think about how I am probably the only one who knows that her picture-perfect life is balanced so precariously on a pile of shifting emotions. But no, I am not the only one. Her Creator knows, and He cares. And one day, as I am reading Scientific American Mind, He sends part of the answer to me. Just a slice of a thought. But a gift all the same.

The topic of the issue is the science of perception, and it describes 169 visual illusions that we experience. "From the confusing and fragmentary inputs gathered by our senses, our brains create our seemingly fluid conscious perceptions and a sensible narrative of the world around us . . . 'Although our sensations feel accurate and truthful, they do not necessarily reproduce the physical reality of the outside world.'"1 Our vision is affected by so many factors. Context. Lighting. Angles. Our own visual strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes we see objects that aren't really there at all. And sometimes we fail to see certain parts of a picture because of the complex background or the contours of the frame.

And what clinched it for me—that this was what I was meant to share with my friend—was when I read these words by Rebbetzin Heller in This Way Up: "What does being accursed mean? It does not mean being challenged either by inner or outer realities; it means not rising to the challenge. It means living a life in which G‑d is perceived as absent, in which passivity, escapism and defensiveness are one's constant companion. A life such as this is genuinely unactualized. This is the ultimate curse. Since the sin of Adam, all humans are born with the capacity for 'seeing' what is not there and not 'seeing' reality as it is."2

The Hebrew word for a transgression is chet, and it actually does not mean "sin." It means "missing the mark." It means not seeing ourselves and our lives with clarity, and consequently responding in harmful ways to the challenges within us and around us. And teshuvah means literally "to return." What are we returning to? To a clear, spiritual perspective that has not been distorted by the past. But in order to reach that perspective, we need to invest a tremendous amount of effort. Rav Dessler in Sanctuaries in Time tells us that life is like a down escalator; if you're not moving up, then you're going down. It takes a lot of energy to move upwards on a down escalator. It requires a daily input of clarity in order to see through the illusions that are inside us and around us.

It is so hard to think clearly when the other person's pain blurs into your own
When I shared all of this with my friend, I knew it wasn't going to be like a magic potion that would suddenly change everything. But I saw a glimmer of recognition in her eyes. She saw that maybe she had been viewing herself and parts of her life through a distorted lens. Maybe she could begin to see blessing where before she had only seen burden? Perhaps everybody's tank empties out sometimes? And though she still isn't sure if she knows what the purpose in her life is, she has begun to believe that it exists. And that belief itself is the first step towards change.

And sometimes all we need to do is take that first step, even if it's just a slight change in how we perceive things. Maybe we need to take a step back. Or maybe to move over just one step to the side. Or turn a piece of our lives around slowly in our hands and ask ourselves if we are seeing the truth, or if perhaps we are blocked by our own illusions. In order to grow, we need to be able to examine how we see ourselves and the world around us.

When Einstein discovered that time and space are relative, he was also bringing into the world this crucial wisdom—that it matters where we are standing, and how fast we are moving, and whether our eyes are opened or closed.

In identical life circumstances, one person will find opportunities for connection and light, while another will see only distance and darkness. And all of our tanks are running on empty, until we decide what we will fill them with. Some will try to fill themselves with distraction and escapism, without realizing that this will only lead to more emptiness. Others will begin to search for spiritual fuel. And it is in the commitment to the search itself that we begin to see past the limits of our eyes into the realities of our souls.

1. Scientific American Mind 20, no. 1 (summer 2010): 1.
2. Tzipporah Heller, This Way Up (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 2000), p. 78.

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By Sara Debbie Gutfreund    More articles...  |   RSS Listing of Newest Articles by this Author
Sara Debbie Gutfreund lives in Telzstone, Israel with her husband and children. She holds a BA in English from the University of Pennsylvania and a Masters in Family Therapy from the University of North Texas. She is a freelance writer and is currently working on her first novel.
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