Making Something of Nothing


When I look at the television, I want to see me staring right back at me
We all want to be big stars, but we don\’t know why and we don\’t know how
But when everybody loves me, I\’m going to be just about as happy as can be

Counting Crows – Mr. Jones

I want to be a person of substance.

I guess that\’s part of why I chose to be a doctor; for the frequent opportunities to really impact people in a meaningful way.  I suppose that\’s also why I choose to blog.  There is something very substantial about changing the way people think, giving them a new and different vantage on things.  My quest to impact patients and readers feels like my \”noble\” side.  I try to connect with people by understanding what they feel and speaking to that.

Ironically, the thing that makes both blogging and doctoring so dangerous for me is this: my success.  The more successful I am, the more positive response I get, and the more I am drawn to try to get more of my substance from them.

Smiling in the bright lights
Coming through in stereo
When everybody loves you, you can never be lonely

But just like any narcotic, my strategy for substance has a dark side.  I feel good when I make patients feel better.  This feeling lasts for a time, salving my self-doubts, only to create more need once the feeling has worn off.  Writing a well-received blog post is the same, giving a short joy followed by the pressure to put out something equal or better.  This pressure became so intense that I had to quit blogging for a year.

This is a pit I can fall into in other areas of life as well.  If I do or say the right things, my wife will accept me more, love me more.  If I can have the right theology, or do the right works, then God will approve of me.  If I am funny enough, play the guitar well enough, or raise my kids well enough, people will think well of me.  Then I will be a person of substance.

This is, of course, a bunch of bullshit.  I guess I knew that was the case, but it is very hard to change something so basic when there is so much to do. I figured a change like this would take a big event.

In reality, it didn\’t take a big event.  It took nothing.

We all want to be big big stars, but we got different reasons for that
Believe in me because I don\’t believe in anything
and I want to be someone to believe

I recently spent a weekend on a spiritual retreat at a monastery in Pennsylvania, with 40 hours of the weekend spent in silence and solitude.  I am not sure exactly what motivated me to go on this retreat (I\’m not Catholic), and I had no idea what I would get out of it, but it certainly sounded good to be getting away from the demands of family, patients, and cell phones.  If nothing else, I would get rest.

The first part of the retreat met this expectation: I was able to read, rest, and meditate on life in a way I can\’t do at home or work.  I felt confident after 18 hours that I was going to be refreshed by the escape from life.

Then I hit a wall.  I had nothing to do.

I was instructed to not bring things that would distract me – even things like books or music; the idea was to spend time in thought and meditation.  I think it took me 18 hours to finally stop, and being stopped was a condition I hadn\’t experienced in a very, very long time.

It was hard.  It felt like I was having withdrawal symptoms; perhaps I was – withdrawing from my addiction to my own actions.  I am doer, carving my personal significance out of what I produce, especially from the reaction of others.  Here I was in a position with neither things to do nor people to impress.  My relaxing weekend of silence and solitude was turning into a stiff slap at my very core.  It wasn\’t a spiritual spa, it was soul surgery.

Believe in me
Help me believe in anything
I want to be someone who believes

After about two hours of struggle, I came to realize something very significant: I am not what I do, who I impress, or what I produce, I am me.  My substance is not produced by my actions, my actions are produced out of my substance.  I\’ve heard it said that we are human beings, not human doings,  but I\’ve never understood the reality of that.  I think I was too busy doing things to understand that truth.

So what\’s the plan?  I can\’t just be without doing; I\’ve got to do things.  The point, I\’ve concluded, is not in what I do, but in the order I do things.   I can do all the right things, hoping to gain meaning and substance, but I end up feeling insubstantial and in need of more action.  If, however, I find substance and meaning from who I am, then what I do brings more pleasure, more substance.  I think maybe God made me because he wanted a Rob, not because he had stuff he needed done.

That\’s pretty meaningful.  It\’s actually pretty cool.

It\’s too early to say that this was a \”life changing event,\” but I definitely feel different.  Yes, I will still check to see how many hits this post gets, and get some pleasure out of friendly comments.  It will still make me feel good to help my patients (which is good news for them).  But I don\’t feel like I need that as much.

Nothing brought enough meaning until doing nothing taught me I need nothing to bring meaning.  I just need me.

I want to be Bob Dylan

No, I\’ll just be Rob.

That will do.

6 thoughts on “Making Something of Nothing”

  1. Wow.  Were you just listening in on my coffee break conversation between me and my co-workers?  This is ON.THE.MONEY.  Thank you so much for writing precisely what I needed to read, precisely when I needed to read it.
    Grin all you want.  Ya done good!  Again.

  2. Thanks for typing up your perceptive thoughts on this subject. This is confirmation for trusting God when you’re dealing with issues of self worth, in situations with enough mind-crushing complexity to make you consider really bad options.  And when silence  (especially on the part of someone who usually talks a lot) is not merely an obligation, but also a necessary part of healing — to whatever degree I allow healing to take place, and accept God’s love….. not always an easy thing to do, when I consider my misdeeds. But, solid and healthy self-worth helps any person not only to act constructively in his/her own behalf, but also to help keep from hurting others, in fact to do them good. Why would I want to reject something of universal benefit? And yet I do so, in some form, every day.  
    I’ll stop commenting so I can think more about the splendid simplicity of what you’ve already noted. Your anecdote about the retreat is incredibly helpful.

  3. It’s amazing when you figure out that nothing you can do will make God love you any more or any less. He loved your being enough to go to the cross for you.

  4. “I think maybe God made me because he wanted a Rob, not because he had stuff he needed done.”
    Amen.  I’m glad your retreat was productive this way.  Being alone and quiet and listening to what’s going on in your head is hard.  Good for you for pushing past the stop to find out what lay beyond.  (“laid beyond”?  “lieth beyond”?  Oy.)

  5. Pamela Whiteley

    Thanks for the beautiful reminder that God loves us… just because he loves us.  
    A good (and related) song by JJ Heller… “Love Me”…

    I will love you for youNot for what you have done or what you will becomeI will love you for youI will give you the love The love that you never knew

  6. I’m sorry to add to your doer addiction, but its gotta be done.  That was cool post!

Leave a Reply