A Theory of Emptiness
Updated: May 5
The feeling of emptiness is a strange emotion. How can one feel empty? Surely the notion of feeling implies there is something to feel? But nonetheless, feeling empty is a familiar sensation that many individuals have to navigate.
Chronic feelings of emptiness – a persistent feeling of feeling nothing at all – are often associated with a variety of clinical mental health conditions; but, unfortunately, this numbness can touch anyone at any point in their life, regardless of their mental wellness.
Now more than ever, with the world in a seemingly terminal state of uncertainty, it’s understandable why people may feel adrift and feel powerless to recover some sense of stability. Life as we knew it is largely gone and so too are the roles we played and the meanings we found there.
This loss of certainty, familiarity, and purpose can leave even the most steadfast of us feeling out of touch with ourselves in a profoundly unsettling way. We define ourselves through what we do, where we do it, and who we do it with. And so, with the world as it is, our very identities can feel eroded, leaving emptiness, meaninglessness, and despair.
Fortunately for us though, we aren’t alone.
Much Ado About Nothing
Many philosophers have spoken about the apparent meaninglessness of existence and the accompanying feelings of despair. Notably, 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) famously declared that
“Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim.”
In other words, suffering is the general rule for life and not the exception. Whilst this may not resolve our feelings of emptiness, there is comfort to be found in knowing that we do not suffer alone, something Schopenhauer draws on in his remedy to the suffering of humanity. He claimed that if you accustom yourself to the view that all life is suffering then you will adjust your expectations of the world and no longer find anything unusual but be able to appreciate existence in all its miserable glory. He goes further, adding that when we take this stance, we also no longer see the wrongs forced upon us by others with surprise; rather we realise that these faults are also our own and the faults of all humanity. What this means is that in a world where suffering defines existence, we all suffer together and so are reminded of “the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbour” which everyone needs and is owed.
Misery, then, does not just love company but, perhaps, is eased by it.
Be this as it may, Schopenhauer’s philosophy of embracing suffering doesn’t do much for providing a logical link between existential meaning and the negative effects of suffering which can leave us feeling even more dissatisfied with our depressing lot.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a philosopher who was influenced by Schopenhauer’s pessimism and whose work remains one of the most misunderstood in modern philosophy, may serve us here.
The average person may associate Nietzsche with nihilism and his proclamation that “God is dead” (often taken out of context); but the truth is that Nietzsche was aggressively against nihilism. Despite what many believe, Nietzsche was not a pessimist like his influencer, Schopenhauer. Rather he was an optimist who, in world of religious decline and subsequent loss of existential meaning, wanted to provide a life-affirming philosophy based not on the inherent suffering of life but on the affirmation of the self, agency, and human flourishing.
To fill the void left by a Godless existence, Nietzsche proposed three potential solutions. Firstly, he discusses a cultural revolution where people could replace the community and solace found in religion with music, art, and philosophy. He saw this as a means to contextualise our suffering and engage empathically with the pains of others. For Nietzsche, the arts and humanities aren’t mere entertainment but a means of seeing our own struggles, ambitions, and emotions; thereby acting as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and others.
Secondly, Nietzsche shows us the importance of recognising, and acting upon, our own agency. He believed that everyone has the capacity to master themselves and their environment – not in the sense of domination and violence but mastery of one’s emotions, of seeking and engaging with opportunities for genuine expression, and extending this personal growth to others. The ideal of self-overcoming or self-mastery is captured in his use of the term “Übermensch”, which contrary to popular belief has nothing to do with Superman or Nazism. The Übermensch is the ideal to which we ought to all strive as it refers to envisaging, and fulfilling, a better version of ourselves and serves as motivation and meaning in a world where meaning is at best obscured and at worst experienced as completely absent.
Self-overcoming represents not a sudden change – Nietzsche is not asking us to snap out of our emptiness – but is an ongoing personal transformation through fulfilment of the self, which in turn serves as a meaning for life and a remedy to its apparent lack of meaning and associated emptiness, pain, and sufferings.
A Proverbial Shovel
For those of us familiar with feelings of emptiness, then, what this means is not a pursuit for happiness but a pursuit of fulfilment. After all, whilst emptiness is uncomfortable, and at times deeply upsetting, it is not an absence of joy but an absence of feeling fulfilled, of feeling like you have a purpose.
How this is achieved varies from person to person; but that’s the point. What fulfils me is most likely different from what fulfils you. The common thread is that each of us is capable of overcoming the feelings of emptiness and despair brought about by the absence of meaning in our lives if we place ourselves at the forefront of our journey and accept that fulfilment comes from change and a dedication to cultivating the best possible version of ourselves.
When faced with emptiness, we don’t necessarily have to follow Schopenhauer in accepting that suffering is all there is (though power to you if you do), we can recognise our radical agency and place ourselves at the centre of meaning, finding fulfilment and betterment. We might then be able to meet emptiness head on, doing our best to overcome it.
About the Author
Clarissa Muller has an LLM in International Law and Human Rights and BA in Philosophy from the University of Kent (UK). Her research interests include post-structuralism, personal and social identity, and particularism and human rights.