The Power Of ‘Nothing’

I remember the first time my parents took me to a drive-in cinema. It was 1985 and we lined up for half-an-hour to secure a parking spot.

After tuning our car radio to the correct station, we put down the back seats of our Volvo 745, rolled out sleeping bags and settled in for the night.

As a young child, I remember how exciting this experience was for me. I got to stay up late in my pyjamas, with my own can of Coke and packet of ‘fags’ (sweets that are now called fads). And best of all, it was a movie that everyone was raving about – a brand new Hollywood blockbuster called Ghostbusters.

Saving the world with your mind

Ghostbusters (for those who missed the original, or its 2016 remake) is about four paranormal psychologists who discover that New York has a ghost problem. It’s not a complicated plot: bad ghost try to destroy the world, someone gets slimed, there’s a giant marshmallow man and the ghostbusters save the world.

Despite the simplicity of this plot, one scene captured my imagination as a child, reminding me thirty years later of the importance of making space.

In this scene, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis are in serious danger at the top of the Empire State Building. An all-powerful ghost-spirit promises to destroy everyone by bringing to life whatever “thought” comes to mind. And the only way that New York can be rescued is if these four scientists can make their minds go blank – completely empty – thinking about nothing.

As ridiculous as this sounds, the idea of ‘thinking about nothing’ fascinated me as a child. Is it possible, I asked myself, to think of nothing?

I remember putting myself in this scene and imagining my life as a Ghostbuster. If the world was in peril, and my mind needed to go blank, could I do better? I tried and failed, again and again. I started to notice just how many thoughts I actually had, and how hard it was to think of nothing.

I spent weeks trying to practice this. Sometimes my mind would go blank for a few seconds, sometimes for longer, but in the end, I always ended up thinking of something. So much for saving the world!

I discovered from this experiment just how hard it can be for humans to make and maintain space. We prefer activity over inactivity, distraction over focus, busyness over rest. Nothing is incredibly hard for us to grasp, especially in the digital age.

Nothing is harder than ‘something’

There is an elusiveness to nothing. Hoarding is easy. Space is hard. In the industrialised West, marked by unlimited choice and constant consumption, ‘less’ is often harder to achieve than ‘more.’

Think about our physical spaces, in particular our houses.

We buy and accumulate. We fill our wardrobes, cupboards, and sheds with stuff. The result is a never-ending battle to clean and tidy our homes, to make space in our lives. Ironically, we never seem to struggle with the opposite problem – wrestling with too much space. For example, as a father, I have never scolded my children for keeping their room too neat: “Hey kids, there’s too much space on your bedroom floor … make it messier!” Like entropy, our physical lives gravitate towards clutter, self-populating with clothes, bags, boxes and random stuff.

The same is true of work.

A busyness that undermines performance

According to Australian work-life balance researcher, Barbara Pocock, a significant proportion of full-time workers are constantly stretched for time. They struggle to focus. They feel tired and overwhelmed. They desire less work, but don’t know how to rest their minds or unbusy their lives. Pocock writes: [1]

“We are often so busy that we cannot see what we are doing, remember why we are doing it, and keep our priorities clear. As long as we are spinning our wheels chasing our work lists, struggling to get enough sleep, work, holidays, money, and to keep our friendship and family running well, we lack time for thought and perspective.”

In a similar vein, Gordon MacDonald in “Ordering Your Private World” writes: [2]

“There is a busyness that reflects a plan of activity, a pattern of priorities, and a sense of purposefulness. It is a good and satisfying busyness through which one grows and increases competence. But there is also a busyness (a destructive busyness, actually) that reflects a chaotic way of life — a way of doing in which one is simply responding to the next thing in the day. The next thing! It makes no difference whether or not it has significance; it’s just the next thing, and one does it because it’s there to do.”

According to both observations, busyness and overwork can be a by-product of not thinking; of not giving ourselves time and space to reflect on where we are going, how we are working, and what we most deeply value. Activity that is reactive and distracted is rarely productive. Such busyness lacks thought and perspective, and can be draining to the soul. Whenever we become so busy that we lose our capacity to consider our options, observe our motivations, or make wise choices, we ultimately undermine performance.

This is MacDonald’s ‘destructive busyness’ – a hyperactive cycle of doing, swiping, scanning, texting, scrolling, and reacting to our detriment, and the detriment of others. The opposite, of course, is to do nothing (when doing nothing is more productive than doing something). It is to make space and time to think, plan, and choose healthier forms of activity.

This is the nature of clutter – and the challenge of making and maintaining space.

We fill our minds with worry, our houses with stuff, and our lives with overwork. And while we crave for space to think, rest and relate with loved ones, we inadvertently end up with full lives. That is, unless we make an intentional decision to do otherwise.

Make space for things that matter

We know that life is busy and cluttered, but few of us truly recognise the value of space. And while I never did master the skill of thinking about nothing (let’s leave that to the paranormal scientists) I am learning to cherish quieter moments.

There is value in slowing down, in being still, in making space. We can capture precious pockets of time if we choose to do so, even in the clutter of life. We don’t always need to do more in order to be more. If we are intentional in how we use our time, we can learn to be Spacemakers – enjoying the power of nothing, routinely in our lives.

If you could enjoy just a bit more space in your life, how would you use it? 

What is one simple thing you might do, this week, to enjoy less not more?

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Barbara Pocock, Natalie Skinner, and Philippa Williams (2012) Time Bomb: Work, Rest and Play in Australia Today; New South Publishing, Sydney, p. 9
  2. Gordon McDonald  (2003) Ordering Your Private World, Thomas Nelson, Tennessee, p.1

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