Hey, Lord, well you made me like I am.
Can You heal this restlessness?
Will there be a void in my heart
When they carry me out to rest?
– John Mellencamp – Void In My Heart
In the last few years the financial institution, Credit Suisse, has ranked Australia, per capita, in the top three richest countries in the world. At the same time, loneliness, depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels, and the suicide rate is at a peak not seen in the last decade.
Our culture teaches us that life is found in the freedom to be yourself, which generally means without the distractions and interruptions of others, even our significant others. But while that excitement might last for a season, it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied. Then we try to fill the hole with the next experience, only to find that that doesn’t last either.
We try to fill our lives with externals. We try to make ourselves rich so we can live a life of leisure; we want to be entertained constantly; we are addicted to our devices to the point where we check them when we wake up in the middle of the night in case there might be something we are missing out on.
All of this creates a restlessness in us that never satisfies. In fact the more we try to fill our lives with externals, the more restless and anxious we become. I have mentioned previously the research carried out by American psychologist Martin Seligman, who has found that the rate of depression in Western nations has increased tenfold since the Second World War. And this at a time when we have never been richer.
About a decade ago, Mark Sayers wrote in his book, The Trouble With Paris, about a time when he was visiting a Pacific island and walked past a man sitting on the grass seemingly doing nothing. Several hours later when Mark was driving back the same way, the man was still there, still sitting on the grass seemingly doing nothing. In our culture we might call that wasting time. I know for myself that I feel like I’m wasting time if I’m not constantly doing something.
To sit still in our culture, to ‘waste time’, seems anathema to most of us. We find it hard to just sit with ourselves and our thoughts. We feel bored if we are not constantly active.
When we feel so hurt that we feel like we will die if we don’t numb the pain somehow, or we feel so overwhelmed that we can’t think properly, we generally turn to something for comfort. At an extreme version we turn to things like alcohol, illicit drugs or sex. At another level it might be retail therapy, the next relationship or the dream holiday. All of these things will seem to fill the gap for a season, but then the old pain and loneliness return. And in a society in which feeling good is the ultimate measure, addiction then becomes rife.
A recent study talked about the problems of the self-esteem movement and it impact on young people, where we feel the pressure to always be happy. The same study showed that anxiety and depression are rampant in that generation.
Emptiness in our lives can be extraordinarily painful. Loneliness is debilitating. Studies show that it is one of the leading causes of death in affluent nations. Depression leads many to suicide. When the pain is so overwhelming, we will want to do anything to be rid of it. That’s why the addict will go to the most extreme lengths, going against their deepest values, to get their fix. They will do literally anything to numb the pain.
Johann Hari, author of the book, Chasing the Scream, about the war on drugs, has shown that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection. When we are connected in healthy relationships, we not only survive, we thrive. Jesus said this two thousand years ago, and study after study shows it is true. Human beings are created for relationship. We cannot live without them. We are happier and have a greater sense of wellbeing with them.
Emptiness is not a pleasant state. But when we feel it, and we choose to sit with it and resist the urge to medicate it, we grow in resilience and character.
Living with a void in our heart is a fact of life for any human. Even the most fulfilling life will not ultimately fill the hole. It seems that we have been created for something better. C.S. Lewis, describing this human predicament, said, “if we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I am convinced that surrendering our lives to One greater than ourselves is what gives us joy and meaning in the midst of our emptiness. When the emotional pain we feel is overwhelming, we need to know we are already loved beyond measure and that nothing can take that away. Jesus’ command to love one another is the most life-giving instruction ever given to humankind.
I no longer try to see addiction and the numbing of pain with alcohol, sex and drugs as merely moral issues. They are mere symptoms of the human condition. The problem with them as they will never satisfy the longing in our hearts. The emptiness we all feel at times can be embraced as a gift to alert us to the need for something greater in our lives. I believe that’s why Jesus said the most important commandment is to love God and love each other.
When we know we are loved by the God of the universe, and know the freedom of loving others in response, we can sit more comfortably with our emptiness and gain the meaning in our lives that we have always sought.