Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Running on Empty

Originally published in The Valley Press April 2005

I don’t watch much TV, but I do listen to the radio while driving my daughter to Santa Cruz several times a week. If I took the ads seriously, it would appear that I could find meaning and fulfillment at the mall. My daughter certainly wouldn’t mind tagging along to test out my theory. Shopping and spending, buying just the right sheets and throw pillows, getting the latest designer cut and color weave, or the perfect spring outfit with matching shoes should be the thing to comfort me while my parents struggle with cancer.

My husband heard an ad awhile back for the grand opening of a department store. A woman called her fiancé to say she couldn’t make their wedding because she couldn’t miss the grand opening bargains. His response—dump her! Where are our priorities?

Things can overrun our homes, filling our closets and shelves and garages and sheds. I speak from experience, having gone overboard collecting all things “pig” in my early twenties. Even so, with our homes crowded with stuff, the sad thing about things is that they can’t fill us in the deep places where we are empty.

We’re often taught to fill that emptiness with things, or with food. It’s easier to eat than to “feel,” to venture into the recesses of our lives where we have to confront pain, loss, our mistakes, the possibility of death.

Sometimes we’re terrified to examine our lives, to understand how we’ve screwed up and how we could make different choices in the future, we think we’ll be devastated by what we find out. Or it may appear, based on our experiences so far, that no matter what we do, things will never work out for us. “The system” conspires against us, so we give up trying.
We want to blame someone or something else for our lot in life, instead of taking responsibility for the things over which we do have some control. Or we try to control everything, including the weather.

We think we are hungry or thirsty or lacking the perfect accessory. So we shop and eat and drink or steal or take drugs to numb ourselves from the pain of life and the pain of existence, or to make ourselves feel alive for a brief moment. Or we make sure that we’re the best at everything we undertake, school, sports, work, as though awards will prove that we are people of worth. We’re all looking for a way to survive in a world where events seem arbitrary and capricious.

I know what it’s like to thirst for hope, to be starved for love, to want to believe that the people you love won’t leave. I know what it’s like to try and satisfy that thirst for something more, to fill that empty place with things and awards. It didn’t work. I could never be good enough, could never have enough to feel whole.

For me, the only way out of that constant emptiness was through God. I was searching for something, and God came to me in the mundane act of taking a shower. I still struggle sometimes, teeter on despair, but that empty place doesn’t ache to be filled anymore, and I know there is more to life than what I can see and control.

Sometimes I wonder what I––middle-aged upper middle-class white woman––can possibly say to those who are truly desperate and struggling, that might quench their thirst. “Try God, it worked for me,” might carry more weight if I were a recovered drug addict or former gang member, not just someone who grew up in all too common divorced households. I am who I am and I can’t change that. My story isn’t spectacular to anyone but me, my “saving” nothing that would make headlines.

Still, to those who feel they’re running on empty, who are running away from a life that is lacking, who are running toward something they can’t define, I will say, “Try God,” however and wherever and in whomever you experience God. Find that connection to what my friend Susan calls the “Great Whatever,” and “The Great Good Spirit.” Seek that higher power, a force outside yourself and you will find your life changed, maybe subtly like a few highlights in your current haircut, maybe dramatically as though you’ve been on “Extreme Makeover.” Either way, God is cheaper than shopping. God’s store never closes and the merchandise never goes out of style.

©Cathy Warner 2005

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