Nothing is Always Something

  • Posted on Dec 03, 2017

Sunday Essay 1 
December 3, 2017 


            So often I hear people complaining that such and such or so and so “is” or “was” boring.  It put them to sleep, they say, or made them want to leave, or scream, or otherwise tune out. 

            We suffer through boring concerts, lectures, people, rides in cars on endless highways, feeling oppressed by the event.  We drift off, or if we’re caffeinated, conjure imaginary scenarios.  Anything to escape boredom.    

            Stories arise in our bobbing heads, offering sleepy brains some relief from the tedium. Bored out of our minds, quite literally.       

            But what is boredom, really?  Does it reside in the concert, the lecture, the person, the car ride?  Or does it lie in ourselves?  Or somewhere in between? 

            And what can we do about it?

            Boredom arises because the present moment doesn’t stimulate enough brain activity to keep us engaged.  Staring at a blank wall for a few minutes would bore most of us, as would listening to a single tone played with no variation for several minutes. 

            Yet I maintain that nothing is not boring, taking both senses of “nothing” as (1) the opposite of something or (2) a vacuum, as in outer space, where vacuums reside in great quantity, supposedly full of nothing at all. 

            In fact, nothing is always full of something, all the time and everywhere.   

            Let me dispose of the vacuum sense of “nothing” first.  Turns out vacuums, far from being empty, are indeed full of somethings—energy fluctuations, at the quantum level.  

            Consider this:  

            “In 1665, Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek discovered microbes when they pointed their microscopes at "nothing." In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson discovered the cosmic microwave background when they pointed their telescopes at "nothing." Vacuum is perhaps the ultimate "nothing," so if history is any indication, "nothing" is an interesting place, especially if you want to look for something.”


            So, vacuums are anything but empty.   

            Let’s return to the first definition of nothing as the lack of stimulation in certain concerts, lectures, people, and rides in cars on endless highways. If they bore us, they seem to have too much nothing.

            Yet like the outer space vacuum that’s not empty, nothing is something if we engage further.  The problem amounts to the false belief that the lack of stimulation resides in the concert, lecture, etc., rather than in response to it.

            Here’s the nub:  Meaning is co-created.  We bring our brains to an event packed with thoughts, feelings, memories, joys, angers, doubts, random little movies, images, fantasies, all firing off repeatedly and endlessly. Literally trillions of neurons stay busy with incoming perceptions, making of them what they will, depending on our shifting moods, level of fatigue, distractions, and chemicals/drugs coursing through our veins. 

            We’ve all had the strange experience of hating something that we later love.  I’m currently reading Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, a novel that I was assigned to read in high school English.  I read it as best I could, but utterly despised it.

            In fact, I loathed it so much I wrote a sharp note to the hapless teacher accusing her of assigning Hawthorne only because it’s a classic, not because it was any good. She wrote back that “I didn’t understand Hawthorne.”  

            Now, 58 years later, the House of the Seven Gables makes me gasp with pleasure.  Such insights! Such a powerful set of observations on New England society and life!  Such an intelligent and utterly engaging writer!

            I can’t believe I didn’t glimpse its greatness earlier.  But I wasn’t ready for it.  

            I needed to live six more decades and have the leisure to engage it on my own time and in my own way. 

            My older and more filled brain brings a set of experiences and observations to Hawthorne’s prose that were unavailable as a teenager.

            Now I co-create an entirely different novel from The House of the Seven Gables that I once despised as worthless and—boring. The novel hadn’t changed; I had.  

            So too with everything.  Concerts, lectures, people, and rides in cars on endless highways cannot “be” boring—boringness doesn’t reside in them, any more than nothing resides in a vacuum.  Instead, we take them to be boring because we don’t bring enough experience to bear on experiencing them.

            Practically speaking, then, what can we do when we feel boredom?

            Put simply, you can decide to pay more attention. Get into the moment you’re in, sense your body’s presence, and start noticing everything.  In a concert that’s not stimulating for you, pick a single line of melody or harmony and focus on it.  Follow it as intensely as you can as it weaves its way through the surrounding sounds.  Or the rhythms and how they’re constantly shifting as the music shifts, and what makes them up—percussive beats or just pulses from the cadences in the music. 

            Or notice one performer and how he/she seems to be interpreting the music, and how that compares with your own interpreting.  That musician is not bored, guaranteed.

            Or take that boring person who never stops talking about himself, boring you to distraction. What are they saying, really?  What’s underneath their words?  What does their body language say along with their words? Does their body language conflict with or support what they’re saying?  Are they essentially sad under their happy talk?  Or happy under their sad talk?

            Anybody and anything is capable of stimulating you into paying attention.  They don’t have to do anything differently from what they always do.  But you have to respond differently. 

            That’s the crux of never feeling bored, and it grows out of recognizing that nothing “is” boring. 

            After all, nothing is always something. 




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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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