When I’ve got nothing


There are times I have to write while in the midst of the struggle to describe it accurately. You can write a novel about walking on Mars, though you haven’t. You can tell about the dark times when you were depressed years after the fact, when now it’s all sunshine and rainbows. If you’re a good enough writer, you’ll capture the essence of the experience. Yet I’ve learned that writing about hopelessness when I’m hopeful isn’t the same. I’m sure writing about the novel coronavirus pandemic will come across differently when we’re looking back at it in our rearview mirror (God willing).

I’m not writing about the virus tonight, at least not directly. I’m not severely depressed today, but I am flat. I have been for two days now. When I’m depressed, everything requires massive effort, including breathing. Remaining here becomes voluntary and not involuntary behavior.

Flat feels different and can be even harder to explain. I’m not summoning the will to live. But I have nothing. I’ll think about all the things I have to do…and do none of them. Forty-five minutes will pass and I’ll try to figure out why I didn’t just get up when I had the original thought–and then forty-five more minutes will pass.

If you’re thinking, “You just described my entire Shelter in Place experience,” uh-huh. That’s why I’m writing this now. Me, too. I have this right now. But it isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way.

I don’t know why this comes on me. Lack of sleep plays a part, but I lived in Nicaragua for seven years and suffered insomnia most of that time and didn’t hit this flat zone that often. When full depression hits, I don’t have any illusion I could just brush it off and get on with things. But in this experience of flatness I always thing I should be able to will it away. It’s harder to explain, harder to make sense of, harder to allow for, because it doesn’t seem that bad.

But I’ve got nothing.

It took a monumental will and all my daytime hours to start writing this and I like writing my blog.

Some of it, to be honest, I can attribute to taking in a constant stream of depressing-as-hell COVID-19 and this administration news. I wish this administration were handling it better, instead of recurrently acting as if they can wish it away. Reading about increasing death tolls should depress us. We might be soul-dead if it doesn’t. I’m praying for people’s lives, which leaves me drained and sharing in their grief. As it should. I’m also, speaking honestly, pissed off at “protestors” who would block ambulances from getting to hospitals. I think that’s a horrific, criminal act and “disrespect” for our overworked, exhausted medical workers doesn’t even begin to capture it. So yeah, that drains me, too.

But this is also the level of “I can’t quite do what I know I need to do to make this better.” I’ve got nothing and I know that means I need a long walk or a talk with a good friend or a long walk while talking with a good friend. Instead, I’m not doing anything from my personal “this will revitalize you” list. I know I should be. I know it…I know it…and I still don’t.

Prayer feels flat. I don’t believe the most important part of prayer is how I feel before, during, or after prayer. I believe the most important part of prayer is God. Fortunately for me (understatement here), God does not change with my moods. Prayer still counts because God is faithful, even if I struggle to say the words–to say any words–or even to groan beyond words.

But sometimes that wondrous thing, when you grit your teeth and push through a prayer time and somehow God lifts you up on the other end, sometimes that doesn’t happen and on the other end, you’re just as blah as when you went in.

Now I want to be super-duper clear here: I am not feeling sorry for myself. That is what people who do not experience depression often label depression: “You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself.” I’m not. I know how self-pity feels, too, and this ain’t it. I see the people who are struggling for real right now and I am doing fine in comparison. Truly. I’m not starving. I don’t have COVID-19. My wife loves me. I know people I love whose lives have become hell. Mine hasn’t. I’m not imagining that I have it hard right now and if you respond by telling me, “Buck up, Mike, it’ll be okay,” then you’ve missed the point of this post and probably it wasn’t for you, anyway.

Have you ever wondered why the starter in your car won’t turn over? I’m about that automotive, so that’s the extent of my car analogies, but when it goes “rurr–rurr-rrurr…” and won’t roar to life? No spark? It’s that. If you’ve had that, I’m certain you know exactly what I mean.

I’ve got nothing right now. Which means, when you stop to consider it, that I’m pulling off some fancy existential footwork, because I’m writing this right now, when I am flat and my starter won’t start. Again, if your takeaway (or giveaway, to me) is “See! You could do it if you just put your mind to it!” then the Positive Thinkers Overcoming Things with Positive Thoughts Group (PTOTPTG) meets down the street about three blocks. I’m not looking to be cheered up. If you don’t experience what I’m describing, then please hear this< Chirpy, cheery words when I’ve got nothing are like nails on a chalkboard, maybe combined with drinking slightly curdled milk. If you’re looking to help, that is not the way; conversely, if you’re looking to get revenge, this is certainly the way.

Okay, this is the part where I’m supposed to give some wisdom for all of us who deal with having nothing and trying to function on any kind of regular basis. I don’t have a lot to bestow. It passes. Sometimes I snap out of it when something wonderful happens and I’m just awed by the joy of life. Most of the time, I simply outlast it. My pep returns. It doesn’t tell me why it vacated but usually I’m just glad it’s back. But I guess that is a first point: I always outlast it. So do you.

Next, when I’m down I care less and when I care less I make worse decisions. But even though I care less about the consequences when I’m down, I still have to pay full price for those consequences and I don’t enjoy them when the bill comes due. If I do lots of self-destructive stuff while i’m not feeling much of anything, I still pay for all that damage I do myself and I still have to recover and heal and walk back out of it. So, when you’re flat, as much as you can, resist the turn toward “who gives a shit?” Because Future You will give a shit. Future You will have to pay this debt (figurative or literal, depending on if overspending is your preferred method to self-destruct) in full and life will be hard enough on Future You. Have a little compassion on your future self. I’m not saying, “C’mon! It’ll all be fine!” I’m saying you know what a stroll through the landmine field feels like from experience, so don’t walk through there again, just because at the moment you dot’t care whether you get ripped in two. You will care. It’s hard, but try to believe that.

Third and lastly, give yourself a break. You may need medication. You may need sunshine. You may need more chocolate (or, shockingly, less chocolate). But don’t, do not beat yourself up when you’ve got nothing. It only brings you down, which translates to longer that you’ll stay at this state of having nothing. Even if you can whip yourself into a frenzy of guilt, your body or your spirit is trying to tell you something in this flatness. Don’t whip yourself in response. If you can, listen to whatever that is in you. If you can’t, treat yourself as you would a friend who told you, “I just can’t. I’m staring at my screen for the past two hours and I’m stuck here.”

Grace. The word here is grace. Tomorrow may be a better day. Tomorrow may be flat like today and God will love us, anyway. This isn’t fun. Neither is it lazy nor some character flaw. I promise. If you can trust me about anything, trust me about this. Don’t listen to your critics, including–especially–the one in your head. If you’re feeling this Got Nothing for the first time with all this Shelter in Place combo of inaction and helpless anxiety, I’m sorry. It can really feel lousy and disconcerting. Have some grace for yourself. Try to do the minimum damage to yourself. Keep praying, even if it’s just “Jesus help me” or “God have mercy” or “Do something!”

The best news I’ve got for you is that God doesn’t feel about you as you do about yourself right now, not flat nor indifferent nor critical. God still delights in you.

And you’ll care again. In time.

13 thoughts on “When I’ve got nothing

  1. Sarah Ternes

    I used to describe it as if the color had just dropped out of everything…it’s a disturbingly benign feeling that detaches any meaning or enjoyment from any experience. Like sitting down to your favorite bowl of cereal, only to find it’s actually cardboard….and always has been?

    You got it exactly right, the way chirpy platitudes feel, when in this state.

    The only thing I’ve found helpful in those times is to connect with my body. To sink my consciousness down into the sensation on my skin, the feel of my breath, and just be there as intentionally and for as long as I can. It’s there I find Him meeting me, reminding me that even if I could never get up and out of that state, His love for me would still be as abundant and vast and deep. And there I usually find the grace to do what my body needs, to listen to it. Sometimes it’s sleep. Sometimes it’s a walk or just to move it however feels good. Sometimes it’s crying or seeking a hug. But almost always, I find if I can deeply connect with my body, without judgement, and respond to what it asks for, I find myself lifting out of the flat space, little by little.

    Hugs to you Mike, in this flat space. I do so love you and your family.

    • Wow! Well, that was the wisdom I needed for the end of this post, or at the very least a major supplemental piece of it. Thank you, Sarah! I need your permission to add this to the body of the text, and also share it elsewhere, if that would be okay with you. It’s absolutely spot on.

      That reminds me, you’re such a good writer and so good with your thoughts…

      Much love to all of you!

  2. Kari Clark

    Thank you for this. I resonate with the flatness and it is not new with the pandemic. The silver lining in this for me is that I have experienced it long enough and often enough to have worked through most of the guilt and self-flagellation.
    The social distancing is this very strange but welcome time of having room to just observe the flatness, the lack of motivation, the “it’s-not-really-difficult-so-why-can’t-I-just-do-it?” phenomenon. Since I don’t have to rush out the door to be somewhere, I can just be. It’s an interesting freedom and I’m curious to see what will come of it.
    There’s a small town about 20 miles from my home that I visit with some regularity. The drive is beautiful and one of my favorite things to do when I just need to get away for an hour or so. Most of the drive is rolling hills covered with fields and farms. But, one section right in the middle is known as The Flats- a stretch of a couple miles without the hills that line the rest of the drive. It is still beautiful and I have friends who live and farm there. The Flats is even a landmark for ambulances on the way to the hospital in town. “We’re in The Flats,” means we’re about ten minutes away, depending on the weather.
    The thing about The Flats is that they are on the way to somewhere and from somewhere. I don’t dread The Flats when I am driving through them and I know I will pass through them again on the way home. So, maybe I’m learning that these other flats are their own type of landmark with their own beauty. It remains to be seen.
    But, for the time being, I’m hanging with you in The Flats.

  3. Sherry Dearborn

    Oh Mike, I have been there. Just blah. I know if I call a certain friend, that will help, but I CAN’T call her. And sometimes the flat feels worse that depression because it is such a lack. I feel some of that now, having a long list of things I could do and want to get done but cannot move toward. Like you, I know if I can stand to just BE, I will come out of this. Thanks for your words and understanding. Blessed Be.

  4. I have to laugh. You describe yourself in a state where you’ve got nothing and are getting nothing done. Why? Because: “Some of it, to be honest, I can attribute to taking in a constant stream of depressing-as-hell COVID-19 and this administration news. …I’m praying for people’s lives, which leaves me drained and sharing in their grief. As it should. I’m also, speaking honestly, pissed off at “protestors” who would block ambulances from getting to hospitals. I think that’s a horrific, criminal act and “disrespect” for our overworked, exhausted medical workers doesn’t even begin to capture it. So yeah, that drains me, too.” You are actually DOING something, and therefore it’s not that you’ve got nothing. What you have is NOTHING LEFT. I’d suggest in those times you take stock of what you’re doing, rather than mistake it for nothing. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “When you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

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