What is nothing?


I used to say, and I still do, that I love New York. It has become a campaign cliche of the most effective sorts, but it’s success as a motto is because it really represents, in the most direct way possible, a feeling that is inevitably real, specially to all those who have come here from elsewhere in the country, and all over the world. The emblematic “I love New York!” is something that many can connect to, have connected to, and continues to connect to.

But if you look at the faces of the people who lives and works in New York, and despite the palpable vibrance of humanity, that promotional catch-phrase is just that: a catch-phrase. You won’t see that sense of love too many of the people’s faces. Maybe, it’s somewhere at the back of people’s minds, but it’s not front and center. There’s something else that’s occupying, or perhaps more appropriately preoccupying, people’s mind.

And so, the question must necessarily be asked: Have you ever, at some point in time, even just once, come upon a moment where you cannot move?

It’s the kind of moment where and when you are not just in some sort of a rut, which happens too often, too ordinarily, but those rare moments where and when you find no more meaning to whatever it is you were thinking about or hoping to do. It’s that crossroad in one’s life where you stop and cannot move forward, or even backward, because there just seems to be no more point to doing so.

Admittedly, it’s a scary moment, and that senseless sense of fright, real or imagined, adds up to the notion that nothing is worth it anymore—short of a suicidal tendency, but that even which, also holds no meaning and no purpose.

The sad part, perhaps, when you come face-to-face with this moment, is you are alone, and you often cannot speak of it to others, out of shame or out of being misunderstood. This experience, painful and lonely, is one that must be borne by one’s self.

I have heard of peculiar stories of people who, even at the height of their achievement or comfortable lifestyle, give up on it, willfully and drastically altering the course of their individual lives, only because they have come upon the revelation and to the conclusion that their existence, while not threatened, holds no meaning for them. That everything that’s going on all around, except perhaps for a handful of relationships they value, has lost the significance.

Parhaps, and because of this, of all the people that should be envied, the ones most worthy of our envy, are those who have found life’s meaning in whatever field or pursuit they happen to be fully engaged in, and moving about with exacting certitude that they cannot be distracted by every bit of the myriad things that are all around.

One of my favorite pastimes, if it can be called that, is during subway rides in the belly of what is dubbed as the world’s greatest city—New York. Whenever I have to take one of these rides, going under and allowing myself to be swallowed by that incredible engineering marvel that is the city’s efficient and almost meticulously controlled and token-maintained subway system, is to look at the people all around me. I look at as many faces as I can, not to remember them, but to observe them, and to draw out their secrets.

The subway scenario is perfect. Underneath, everyone there is practically a prisoner, from the time of descent to the time of emergence back to street level. It is a perfect pause, caught up in mindless transport that has everyone in a suspended state of animation. Even while everyone tries to make the most of the time, by reading a newspaper or a book or a monograph, or by listening to music or perhaps an audiobook or a podcast, nothing really goes and nothing really happens until one reaches the planned, or even imagined, destination. And so, while under this unusual spell that can happen at any time of the day or night, even if only for a few minutes, one is caught up in an almost temporary catatonic state of wait.

I fall into this sort of catatonic wait myself, but mostly, I indulge in my fascination and infinite curiosity about other people who might be around me, not just to see their faces, their general countenance, and their manner of garb, which can be very strange at times but which has become somewhat generally accepted and almost ignored in a city that is no longer a stranger to the idea of strangeness, but to try to fathom the depths of those whom I might look at.

It is, of course, considered rude to stare at strangers, my mother tells me so, and in effect, I generally try to visually absorb as much as I can in whatever I see, mostly and generally forming fleeting if not first impression, before quickly averting my glance to something or someone else and before I am suspected of rudeness.

It’s an exercise in sociology, if you will, but without any background in its underlying theory. Perhaps, I’ll also be forgiven for being a photographer, whose very essence of its business is to look. Despite my shortcomings in the science of it all, I try to pry, fathom and distill the meaning of people’s lives—what is it that drives them to whatever quest they are after at that very moment.

While the subway system and the train cars underground move people faster than all the frenetic walking that happens on all the sidewalks of Manhattan a few inches above (and New Yorkers walk really fast), people are necessarily and considerably slowed down in the caverns below. In that confined space underneath, the movement of people are almost always in slow motion. And I can imagine, that the sudden change in pace gives them the momentary opportunity to reflect upon things, which, if you look at their faces, are clearly etched.

While there will be those who will try to mask it, like bobbing one’s head to the beat of a music delivered through the ubiquitous white wires from an unseen player in a pocket to the ears, or getting lost in an intellectual exercise of sudoku, or really, through any number of portable distractions, majority are free-standing on their own, with nothing but the unfettered flow of their thoughts to occupy them for the time being.

Lost in the swirl of their temporary mental exile where there is no escape until the arrival at their destination, their faces are a fascinating study. You can see their struggles, their angers, their fears. Clearly etched on their faces are expressions of their concerns, real or imagined. It is, just as clearly, who they are.

While I cannot presume to read their minds and know of each particular case, it is interesting to “read” them by looking for clues—their outward physical appearance, the way the dress up, the way they carry themselves, the things they bring with them, and even their subtle interaction with strangers all around them, can often offer an insight into what or who they are, and perhaps, even intimate the state of their current circumstance.

Who am I to tell or to judge subway people by merely looking? I have no right to do so, to begin with. But it is not to them or for them that I do it. It is for myself. I do it because I seek understanding of my own life situation, or predicament, if you will, by visiting upon the countenance of other humans who trudge the subway system with me, and who may, perhaps, through the practice of casual glance or a more involved observation on my part, can lead me to the very answers I seek, of which, the meaning of what I am doing, and why I am here.

The other day, I decided to subscribe to the podcast of financial guru, Suze Orman. As I watched the first episode that just finished downloading, she was dispensing an advice to a couple, the husband of whom was contemplating of moving to another city due to some employment possibilities, and trying to grasp what it all means to the future of their financial well-being. I abruptly stopped the podcast in the middle of the episode as I was struck by what Orman said almost casually, as if she has been saying that for the longest time that it has become a common wisdom, a guidepost, a principle, by way of supporting a particularly recommended advise. What caught my attention was not the particular case that was being talked about, nor her particular advise, but the principle which she almost off-handedly stated: the realization of what is really important to one’s life.

If Suze Orman were to suddenly ask us, on TV or even face-to-face, we’d probably be unable to muster an answer with certainty, right there and then, and without the time to sort through the rubbles in our minds, what is it really that’s important to us.

And to some people, the answer may not come at all. Because there is no answer to that question. It’s like asking, “What is nothing?” What could possibly be the answer to that? Isn’t nothingness just, well, nothing?

The people whose faces I see in the subway, whose faces are contorted, and not even in a way that is consciously animated but pulled about in ugly, conflicting directions, by the palpable force of their inner struggles that’s raging, and being fought, are perhaps struggling to find something out of that nothing.

Again, I do not judge others, and not only do I sympathize or empathize, but, I connect to them.

Happy are those who have found the purpose of their lives, and have found the outlet and the means to express them. Unhappily, not too many have found it, yet, and so far. Many people struggle with the existential question of their lives, the meaning of their existence, and I don’t mean that in a religious or cosmological sense, but in the most practical of terms, of the deep-seated and utter conviction of the purpose of one’s moment-to-moment life.

There are not too many of that in New York City. And perhaps, not anywhere else.

[Note: Dominique James is a professional photographer in New York City. Visit his website at http://www.dominiquejames.com or email dominiquejames@mac.com for more information.]

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