I am not okay.
No, this isn’t a cry for help. I’m not depressed or suicidal. Nothing terrible has happened.
Still, all is not well. In a nutshell, I’m empty. Things that once brought me meaning no longer do.
Let me be clear: I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy or solutions. I simply have to get this off my chest. I’ve attempted to write about a myriad of other, more positive topics over the last few months. Each attempt has felt like a tacit falsehood. My well has run dry.
So here I am. Empty.
I hate feeling this way for a multitude of reasons. For one, my life, from an outsider’s perspective, is going well. I’m mostly recovered from my 2019 accident. I’m back to traveling, hiking, and doing the things I love.
Unfortunately, these things no longer make me happy the way they once did.
As I write these words, a college friend of mine battles stage 4 colon cancer. Another friend grieves in the wake of her husband’s sudden drowning. A college classmate, perfectly healthy, just died of COVID two days ago. People I love are facing enormous hardship. Meanwhile, here I sit at my condo in Puerto Vallarta, México, living the dream, for all intents and purposes.
The only problem? It’s not enough.
I’ve faced plenty of difficulties over the course of my life. Lost one of my best friends in a freak accident in college. Lost numerous friends to suicide. Lost uncles, cousins, and friends to cancer. Had my heart broken. Broken others’ hearts. Made more mistakes than I can count. Bit my tongue off mountain biking. Tore my Achilles. Battled Lyme Disease. Fell 80 feet and broke 21 bones.
Through it all, I managed to keep a positive outlook, to see the bigger picture, to find the silver lining. Until…well, now. Now that things are actually, for all intents and purposes, going well.
This is the emptiest I have ever felt, and I can’t seem to figure out why.
I don’t get it. I’m not sure what changed. I feel weak and guilty for being unable to pull myself up by my proverbial bootstraps like so many times before.
Have you ever noticed that it’s uncomfortable to talk about current problems? Current pain? Current issues? Everyone wants to share their success story, not their present struggles. “I used to be addicted to painkillers.” “I once was an alcoholic, but I’ve been clean and sober for eight months.” “I battled depression before I found Jesus.” “I once weighed 305 pounds, but through hard work, I’m down to a healthy weight.”
Not many people know how to handle hearing someone say that they’re not okay. Right. Now.
When your arm is broken, people flock to sign your cast. When your spirit is broken, people run the opposite direction.
I’ve built my life on the premise that we are here to give love and bring joy to others. I’ve tried (and often failed) to do so for as long as I can remember. Now, I feel like I don’t have much, if anything, to give.
What’s it all for? Why am I here? Does anyone actually care? What’s the point in even trying to be a source of light for others when there’s so much darkness, darkness both within and without? Why do I consistently fail at being the kind of person I long to be?
Instagram is life. Everyone is trying to present the best versions of themselves to everyone else. Even those who strive to appear authentic still have to work hard to project authenticity. What is real? Who is real? What’s the point of even trying to play the games required to succeed in this picture perfect plastic place?
We all spend our lives chasing dreams, goals, agendas. We succeed. We fail. We make friends. Lose them. Fall in love. Get our hearts broken. Work hard. Get laid off. Retire if we’re lucky. And then? Then we die.
I’ve worked hard to get to the place I’m at in life. Now that I’m here, I realize it’s brought me exactly zero meaning.
Until quite recently, I simply refused to talk about this emptiness that’s been gnawing away at my soul. In refusing to do so, though, I felt like I was living a lie, felt as though the walls of the empty pit I’ve been in were only growing taller and more insurmountable.
I tried everything. Hiked more. Drank great craft beer with good friends. Booked trips to Colombia, Sweden, Latvia. Prayed. Read books. Spoke extensively with my counselor.
Finally, after a week of struggling to get out of bed (which if you know me, is antithetical to everything I am about), I knew I had to break my silence. I decided that whenever someone asked how I was doing, I would tell them the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it made either of us.
The first time I shared the state of my heart with someone who wasn’t expecting it, I was surprised by the outcome. I took a chance and was honest with my former boss, a happy-go-lucky individual that I’ve never actually had much of a serious conversation with in over seven years of friendship. “I’ve actually been feeling exactly the same way,” she said. “I work, I raise my daughter, I go to bed. Then do it all over again. I can’t seem to find meaning or purpose.”
Then it struck me. Maybe I’m not the only one feeling like this.
I opened up to a few more people and experienced the same result. An old friend, recently sober, who has found strength in sobriety but is still looking for meaning. A family member, who I love dearly, who teaches others about God but struggles to find Him or to know that He actually cares. A former coworker, once an unwaveringly pious Christian, who, as she put it, has realized that nothing makes sense, and that after Proverbs comes Ecclesiastes. Another family member, shunned by her own daughter for reasons her offspring won’t divulge, trying to find a way to move on.
Could it be that we’re all in this together? Could it be that we are all fumbling through the darkness, trying to patch together a life of purpose as best we can?
The moment we think we have everything figured out is the moment we stop learning, stop growing, stop asking honest questions.
“In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other,” Carl Sagan succinctly said. I am incredibly grateful for those in my life that have given me a space, a shoulder, and an ear.
Sadly, not everyone in my life has been interested in meeting me where I am at. When I brought up my emptiness to several Christian friends, they placated me with overly simple answers. “You’ve got a God-shaped hole inside of you,” they said. “Maybe it’s sin that’s keeping you from Him. Or selfishness. Maybe He’s trying to teach you something.”
Maybe all of these things are true. But maybes aren’t getting me any closer to happiness.
Plus, God never promised we’d be happy in this life. He did promise peace, but I’m still waiting for Him to fulfill that promise.
Also, the answers of a couple of my non-Christian friends weren’t any better. “Slow down,” they said. “Relax. Do more of what makes you happy.” The only problem? The things that used to make me happy no longer do.
I’m a solutions guy. If there’s a problem, yo, I’ll solve it. It’s frustrating to be here, without a road map, without a game plan. I struggle with being alone with my thoughts. Maybe that’s why I’ve kept so busy this year, taken on so many remodeling projects, picked up two more part-time jobs.
Silence can be deafening. Echoes carry the farthest through an empty space.
Where do I go from here? I don’t know. I have zero answers, and that is hard for me to admit. Maybe I need to volunteer again, to give of what little I have left in service to others. Maybe now that health issues have forced me to retire from playing music, I need another passion to pour my heart into. Maybe I need to surrender to God the things I’m holding onto. Maybe I need to take my counselor’s advice and try different approaches. Meditation. Medication. Maybe I need to practice gratitude and fake it till I make it. Maybe I just need to bury it all deep down.
For now, I sit here, empty. This chapter in my life doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. In my heart, though, I still believe that blessed are the empty, for they have room to be filled.
My only hope in writing this is that maybe you can relate. Maybe you resonate with some, or all, of what I’ve said and how I’m feeling. Maybe you need to know that you’re not the only one who feels empty, feels lost, feels discouraged.
If you find yourself where I am, reach out. Maybe somehow we can help each other find some small piece of the meaning we are looking for.
9/17/2021 12:12:37 pm
Thank you for being vulnerable and authentic. Although our journeys differ wildly, I resonate with a lot of what you said in my bones.
9/17/2021 01:01:59 pm
I hear you, Jon. I know you said you aren't depressed, though what you described sounds a lot like clinical depression, which I personally deal with. I've never been more successful than I am right now. And I realize how much I, and maybe humans in general, gain from unfulfilled dreams and goals, especially achievable ones. I've always hoped on my deathbed that I still have a long list of things I want to do before I die. I still do, but most of the big things I've done. And so there's a lot of now what?, combined with guilt I feel for seeing friends struggle. Guilt and maybe some jealousy too. I liked the struggle! I mean it was hard, and frustrating and downright demoralizing at times, but it was real and I felt accomplished just surviving some days. Now, I try to manufacture struggle, create the occasional drama, give myself projects and it helps but it's not the same. That all is to say, you arent alone, and if you figure it out let me know. I keep telling myself the biggest thing I need is for people to come over and just sit and watch movies with me. Just casual connection with no pretense or planning or expectation besides a movie we're watching. And covid and the general propensity of Portlanders to fear crossing rivers has made that difficult. Maybe that is all I need. Or maybe once it happens I'll be right back here again.
9/22/2021 06:13:08 pm
Thank you for sharing.
9/17/2021 12:45:13 pm
Wow Jon! I am so sorry you are in a space of emptiness within yourself. I know you as a vibrant, fun and intelligent, steadfast friend. You are strong in your convictions and will support anyone you meet, even if they have differing opinions, because you love the discussion; learning where the other person is coming from. It showed in your music and the couple times I was fortunate enough to hang out with you.
9/17/2021 12:54:53 pm
Thank you for sharing, Jon. I'm glad I got to know what's in your heart right now. I thought of this when you I read your post:
9/17/2021 01:55:56 pm
Life has no meaning and the assumption that it does is a religious escape mechanism. We are insignificant specs of nothing in a vast empty universe of nothingness. Continue to speak with mental health pros. But understand “meaning” is only what you make it. It’s perfectly ok to do nothing. I did that for a year of lock down. I also feel empty, despite having a great job, a home, friends and family. If nothing brings joy any more, that’s perfectly normal. It’s unfortunate, but that is the life millions experience due to depression.
9/17/2021 01:57:05 pm
I tend to feel this way when I'm going through transitions. When I no longer have interest in things that previously brought me joy or when I was no longer able to do them for whatever reason. Maybe a new hobby may inspire you again? If you buy a boat, I will happily cruise with you!
9/17/2021 02:24:08 pm
Existential dread is nothing new to the human psyche. And it is unavoidable. There is hope. Silence is your friend. In this you find the joy in the smallest of everyday living. You have to be silent to find this. Accomplishment is only the end result of your working. The key being the "end". The joy is in the doing not the being. In finding these tiny bits of joy you allow the grace to flow into your inner being. Surrounding that grace is the warm part of being human.
9/17/2021 02:31:19 pm
Hey John - I am so thankful that you wrote this. This is so similar to where I am at in my life.
9/17/2021 03:29:29 pm
Jon, I feel it. Every line. I’ve found some degree of relief—no, not really relief, but more like orientation—in making friends with the darkness and abandoning happiness as an objective worthy of my attention. Or as Eminem has suggested, the only way forward is to make friends with the monsters under your bed. Sometimes—maybe often—meaning and happiness are incompatible. Dostoyevsky suggested that it’s not possible for a thinking person in a world like ours to experience happiness. Only those who are blind to reality, or medicated, can really be happy. As Bob Dylan said when asked if he was happy, “Happy is a yuppie word.” I think what he was getting at is that happiness is a rather modern existential invention that has arisen out of our hyper focus on personal fulfillment as opposed to the pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness as worthy ends in themselves, happiness be damned. I recently reread Victor Frankel‘s, Man in Search of Meaning, and gave additional attention to the second half of the book, in which he outlines his logotherapy. Wow it’s good, mostly because he frames the emptiness as an existential space worthy of occupation, precisely for the reason you have suggested: once you get comfortable in the empty room, you can fill it with new realities that are defined by meaning rather than by happiness, and whatever happiness comes along the way as a byproduct, cool. Today I don’t need happiness, because I have something better in your musings here. I have resonance with a fellow human being in the absence of happiness. Thanks for writing this.
9/17/2021 04:31:01 pm
Maybe you need a break for a minute? By your own admission you’ve been going going going for years. Your work and personal life seem to be throughly interconnected so where is the time to just be? Everyone needs a break and sometimes your brain needs a little help to stop moving at such a great speed all of the time. We haven’t talked for years but I am here and thoroughly medicated. We are all connected in these feelings. You are not alone.
9/18/2021 12:21:46 am
Just THANK YOU. From the bottom of my heart.
Jennifer J Schwirzer
9/18/2021 04:33:56 am
Hey, we've never met in person but I love you! This is the best piece out there right now.
9/18/2021 07:16:09 pm
Thank you for being brave enough to share your true feelings and self with us. You are definitely not alone. The ebs and flows of life can be so frustrating and discouraging and hard. I hope you find meaning and fullness and answers.
9/19/2021 08:15:15 am
I feel you… or maybe it is because I don’t feel anything. I could have written my own version of this many times in the past two years. Thank you for doing so. Misery does love company.
9/19/2021 10:17:15 am
9/19/2021 02:20:47 pm
Thanks for sharing your humanness Jon. It helps all of us.
9/23/2021 08:58:56 am
You. Are. Not. Alone.
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