The Emptiness of Change

I was reflecting this morning on how frightening the emptiness of change can leave you sometimes.

When one of my nieces was two years old, I saw this in real time. She was an only child at that time, and her mother wasn’t working and her parents couldn’t afford to go out to dinner. So my sister and my niece were always physically together; and when they weren’t together, my niece was together with her father. I was visiting and my sister asked if I could watch my niece for a little while because she and her husband needed to go to the bank and refinance their mortgage. They anticipated, correctly, that the appointment would take a long time and that my niece would grow restive. So they were happy to be able to leave her at home. My sister got a little teary-eyed because she hadn’t left her daughter like this before. But my niece was so excited by the novelty of having her auntie there to play with her, that she didn’t process the goodbye that my sister and her husband were giving.

Everything went well for a few minutes after my sister left, my niece and I played quietly. Then she decided that she wanted to show her mother something she had made. She called out and then she began searching. Finally, when she couldn’t find her mother, she sat down and wept and wept. I tried to console her, to reflect her feelings back, to put it in perspective, but a two-year old really doesn’t have those resources. After she wept, she went into a strange, blank space, an emptiness, and became completely unresponsive. Afraid, as I was every time she had an unexpected reaction, that I had broken my sister’s child, I got a little panicky. I tried to draw her out by talking with her or offering her a cookie, but she stayed withdrawn. Finally, I made a big deal of finding a book to read, one of her favorites, and sat down nearby. I began reading it aloud, at first accurately, then I began making mistakes, really obvious mistakes, with the story. My niece, who had appeared to not be listening at all, caught that the story so familiar to her wasn’t turning out the way that it should, and crawled up into my lap to make sure that I read it accurately. We turned back to the first page and I re-read it to her the right way; then she picked out another book and we read that one together. And then another. And then another. I think we were on book five when her parents came home.

We experience that emptiness of change a lot as a child. The world is still new to us and we are very much aware that we don’t really understand it or that we actually exert much control over it. As we grow older, and we learn more, we make up stories for ourselves about how the world works, we develop an illusion of control that is comforting. But the emptiness can be just as jarring, just as disorienting, when that illusion is broken and change comes to us without invitation.

2001 was like this. New York City was in such a state of shock. Everywhere we looked, vertical surfaces were covered in pictures of the missing, a feeling that maybe only those in Buenos Aires understand. The missing hung in the air like dust, casting a silence like the silence of sleeping beauty’s castle over the city. Cars moved silently, without honking, people sat at outdoor tables eating food without talking to each other. Construction workers didn’t hoot at the ladies walking by. Every time an ambulance passed by, my heart leapt up – had they finally found someone under the rubble, someone who required an ambulance with the siren on? I remember rushing into an intersection, against the light, to stop traffic for an ambulance because I had to do something, something to have some illusion of control over the situation.

2016 was also a very hard year for me. Trump won the election, which left everyone who hadn’t voted for him in a state of shock that sent many people into therapy or to check into in-patient services. As time went on, we filled that shock with pink hats and indignation. In 2016, I also left my job of 31 years. I had been thinking of leaving but I didn’t really know how to start planning, how to take that first step. I watched as people who had worked there a long time, had thought they would work there forever, had been bullied out. I watched as a new broom made his mark by eliminating those who were too closely aligned with his predecessor or who had rocked the boat with the VP of HR one too many times by speaking truth to power. When my time came, I entered his office and, as he told me that he was replacing me with one of his own people, offering me a choice between a diminished pair-of-hands role I had no interest in or severance, I took notes, trying hard to fill the emptiness with an illusion of control. I left his office, went back to my office, did some work, then left and, on the way home, stopped in a park, sat on a park bench, called my therapist, and screamed into the phone how I was a failure. That weekend, I tried hard to find some way to exert control over the emptiness I was feeling. On Monday I tried to negotiate that control with him, with HR, then I finally accepted the severance package, went back to my office, and emptied my desk into the trash can, although I still had over a month to work there. Throughout that month, the emptiness grew, despite my attempts to fill it with other things. And, after I left at the end of that month, I continued to try to fill it with things: with cooking, with walking, with anger, with love, with relevance. It stalked me for months, that emptiness, until a mentor pointed out how I was trying to avoid it, to fill it, and I stopped. Only then could I find a new job and move on.

You can’t fill a cup that is already full of pussy hats or with indignation, or of attachment. You can only fill an empty cup.

Today I ask you to remember the last time you felt this sense of emptiness. To connect with that emptiness and how it left you feeling groundless and isolated and disoriented. Maybe it was earlier this year, when they set the Covid protocols in your area and you started to work from home or went on furlough. Maybe it was when someone you loved died. Or when you were diagnosed with a disease you didn’t have much control over. Maybe it was when you didn’t know the words to make it better for your child.

And I invite you to channel that feeling of emptiness into compassion for others who may be feeling that emptiness now.

David Brooks, the conservative commentator, said last week on The PBS Newshour, that he was worried about his friends who were planning to vote for Trump again, worried because they were so firmly in their bubble that they couldn’t imagine that anyone would vote against Trump, or that Trump might lose this election. He was worried about the shock they would feel if Trump lost the election.

I am sure they are feeling that same sense of emptiness that those of us who voted against Trump in 2016 felt then. I am sure that they are suffering, even if they are filling that sense of emptiness with something right now – anger, indignation, disbelief, hope.

I ask you to have compassion for these people, your crazy uncle, your grandparent who watches too much Fox News, your sister who posts conspiracy theories on Facebook, your neighbor with the Trump flag, the guy at the grocery store in a MAGA hat that refuses to wear a mask. I ask you to remember what a fragile state emptiness can be and to be gentle with their feelings. Don’t be a sore winner.

Now is the time to extend kindness to those who think differently than you do.

It is the first step toward moving forward.

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