Feeling Lost and Confused? Time to Explore the Fertile VoidNancy Shepherd, M.Ed. April 1, 2008
“Confusion is the state of promise, the fertile void where surprise is possible again.” – Paul Goodman
When asked how he was doing, the caller on the crisis line said, “I need to tell someone I’ve decided not to jump.” As the sounds of traffic rumbled in the background, he continued, “You know, I’ve got it all. I have a good job, a great wife, a house…” His voice trailed off. “But?” the crisis worker on the other end of the line asked. “But,” he responded, taking an audible breath, “I’m 49 years old. I just know I can’t go through the next 30, 40 years of my life in the same way. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
What the man on the bridge had come face to face with is a question we may all ask ourselves at various points in our life – who am I? We may be a young adult leaving the family home for the first time or someone older undergoing a midlife passage. Perhaps we’re drawing nearer to the end of our life and questioning not only who we are, but who we’ve been. No matter where we are in our life’s journey, such questions usually evoke confusion, and when there is no ready response, the ensuing silence can be frightening.
Some of us, on the other hand, seldom give much thought to who we are and what our life is all about. We manage to deflect any self-doubt, fears, and uncertainty by rushing about in ‘doing’ mode. We fill our lives with busyness. We surround ourselves with family and friends. We strive to prop up our sense of self by going after bigger and better: the bigger house, the better job, the new and improved relationship. We anaesthetize ourselves through more food, more drugs, more sex, more television.
For a time, this works . . . until the life we’ve mapped out fails to go according to plan. We sense that something needs to change, but we’re not sure what. We feel stuck not knowing which way to turn. In some cases, our life may go completely off the rails. We may unexpectedly find ourselves, for example, facing a major illness or the death of someone close to us. We may lose our job or our ‘life’ partner may leave us. Less dramatic but equally shattering, as the man on the bridge discovered, is the sinking realization that if this is all there is to our life, then we don’t want it. At least not in its present incarnation.
Whatever the circumstances that turn our world upside down, what eventually emerges is that, no matter how hard we try to hold on to what was, the life we’ve known will probably never be the same again. The next question begging to be answered is, “Now what?”
And the answer lies in not doing anything, at least in the short term.
For a culture on the go all the time, such a concept may seem not only impractical, but also unachievable. Today, we measure our worth by what we do and how busy we are. That’s why it’s so difficult to disengage ourselves from all manner of electronic gadgetry when we go on vacation. Losing touch with our workplace means losing touch with who we think we are.
Taking time out from our busy lives, then, particularly when forced upon us by circumstances, can be a truly unnerving experience. When we feel the familiar foundations giving way beneath us, this is usually a signal that some aspect of our life is changing or coming to an end. Fearful because the path ahead may not be clear, we feel out of control. Where we used to find stability in our ‘doing’, now we’re lost in a void that has opened up before us. And when we can tolerate the uncertainty no longer, our inclination is to act immediately, without plan or thought, filling ourselves up with people and things, and shaping our life into what we think it ought to be.
On the other hand, if we can resist the urge to rush into figuring out what’s next and simply be with the confusion of not knowing, we may find ourselves in a void that is actually fertile with new possibility. Fertile void sounds like a contradiction, but chaos theory and the stories about creation tell us that a ‘created something’ inevitably emerges out of an ‘empty nothingness.’ The void is in fact a source of pure potential.
Recall for a moment what it’s like to be stuck in the car during a traffic jam or on a subway train stalled between stations. In both instances, you most likely don’t know why you’re stopped or when you can expect to start moving again. All you know is that you are where you are – in the car or on the train – and there’s very little that you can do except wait. Being in the fertile void can feel like this. When we’re stuck or undergoing a major life transition, we’re plunged into this in-between place of not knowing what’s next.
Rather than control and shape what you hope will happen next by imposing tried and true habits and beliefs, try letting go of ‘doing’ and enter into a place of just ‘being.’ This means paying attention to what you are experiencing right now in all its discomfort – the anger, the grief, the confusion, the overall sense of not having any control about what is happening. There is much to be gained by trusting that the ‘now what?’ will emerge from the creative energy of the fertile void.
When we consciously enter into these chaotic feelings from a perspective of not knowing what’s next, we allow the possibility for something new and fresh to emerge. In other words, in letting go of preconceived notions and expectations about how things should be, we open up to what might be. When we empty ourselves of what we think we know, we make space for the emergence of other possibilities and choices. Although experiencing our confusion to the utmost can be painful, something inevitably shifts in the process. The response to ‘now what?’ becomes clearer.
This is not to say the clarity we seek will come quickly. The fertile void is essentially a time of waiting, not acting. Of stepping outside our busy “doing” to rest in the stillness and quietude of our being. It is a time to become exquisitely aware of everything calling for our attention. As such, it is a time to re-examine aspects of our life and let go those that no longer feel right. Ultimately, the fertile void is an opportunity to reconnect with the essence of who we are and how we want to be in the world.
When the crisis worker asked the man on the bridge what he needed, he replied, “I think I need to go home and just sit with this. And then I’ll see… I’ll see what’s next. Right now I don’t know.” Courageously, he had chosen to re-engage with his life rather than walk away from it, to enter the fertile void not knowing what the future held for him.