“What can I make with this?”
It’s a question to which I return, over and over. It is a question, understood not so much as the first half of an answer, but as a tool to create better tools for living.
Confidence says you can make anything out of nothing. Common sense quotes “you can’t get blood out of a turnip.” Knowledge says you had best pick the material to suit the purpose, or else reshape the expected outcome.
Somewhere, each of these viewpoints intersects to form something useful.
What sort of tool do you craft out of nothing?
What sort of purpose is the material suited for?
What are key characteristics of nothing?
- It has space.
- It is infinitely light (lacks mass).
- It is characterized by absence of something expected.
- It reveals, through that absence, what is expected.
- It holds no distractions.
- It is a tool for clarity.
- It is characterized by lack of resources; lack of the things that remove barriers to work.
- It is a space in which your barriers are revealed or made clear.
- It is a space in which your task is to confront your barriers.
Nothing reveals what we need.
People are shaped by need.
Seek to understand what you need, what others need. Then you will begin to understand why and how people are shaped. So nothing is a worthwhile, fertile area of inquiry.
Let me be clear: need, unanswered, can be crippling. In a systemic or social sense, “having nothing” only holds potential when it is clearly defined as finite, an experience to be contemplated rather than something that is all-encompassing. Otherwise it quickly takes over a life.
A month of nothing is enough to destroy a life. It will certainly cripple that life’s future for quite a while to come. Do we really need to go about the business of qualifying the state of having nothing as the news does – “through no fault of their own” and all such unexamined catch-phrases?1
I don’t know about you, but when I see someone choking or drowning my first impulse is to ask – “Excuse me, but is this through any fault of your own?” (Not really.)
If your only resource is “nothing,” fault is missing the point; it implies that there are other people who have nothing through every fault of their own.
Why do we not instead say, “they have nothing through every fault of ours? We, as a system, have had a failure of empathy; that is the correct understanding of need within this context.”
In a creative sense, I am determined to learn and create from nothing because that is the only space allotted for so many throughout this world. Each day I look for something that is less than what it could be, with the goal of understanding what it needs to become more than it is.
In an intellectual sense, this action should be unnecessary. But maybe once I know the trick of creating out of nothing, or tricking nothing into becoming something, or perhaps just tricking the people who are busy saying “through no fault of our own” – I will have a chance at tricking other brains into refusing to accept nothing as an option. There may be a chance to say, look – nothing has become something, therefore nothing is no longer an option. Let’s instead turn our energy and attention to growing something into everything, something all can share.
1 In the United States, much of the discourse surrounding the economic impact of covid-19 and associated shelter-in-place orders has focused on the fact that people are experiencing unemployment, debt, homelessness, and privation “through no fault of their own.” The fact is that, in absence of the epidemic, these same issues were bitterly divided along partisan assignments of blame just a few months prior. Yet the causes of economic vulnerability have not changed, only been magnified. “Through no fault of their own” has become the political excuse to avoid saying, we should have put in place greater workforce and wellbeing/safety protections all along.