How To Stop Feeling Empty–Living a Fulfilled Life

How To Stop Feeling Empty–Living a Fulfilled Life

An Innocent and Selfish Childhood

I’m privileged enough to say that my childhood was characterized by an endless cycle of boredom and distraction. My days slowly drifted by as I hopped off the school bus at 2 pm, raced inside for snacks, and walked to my friend’s house to spend the day playing Minecraft. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that to be a kid is to be able to be bored–to have long periods of time where you’re not doing anything and there’s no nagging thought in your mind telling you that you should be doing something. In order to escape the boredom, I did as most kids did–I distracted myself. Countless hours were spent loitering outside my house or laying on the couch watching whatever Nickelodeon or Disney show managed to grab my attention. It was a lazy and irresponsible but innocent time. 

Throughout high school not too much changed. Despite the mounting school work, I managed to get by on several hours of League of Legends a night. I dragged myself through high school classes, turning my brain on autopilot, and then came home with an empty head, ready to distract myself until the next day of unfocused attention. At school, news of the latest social injustice or impending climate disaster always remained in the periphery. None of it mattered to me because nothing mattered to me–except volleyball games, girls, and League of Legends.

Then, just as my childhood was on the cusp of ending, the goalpost was thrown a mile down the road as a global pandemic swept across the world. Quarantined in my house for months with nothing but my computer and ice cream to keep me company, days and nights blended together until days became weeks and weeks became months. I fell asleep thinking of video games and TV shows that I would play or watch the next day, and I woke up the next morning intent on fulfilling those promises. It was March when the quarantine started. I blinked, and then, it was June.

Looking back on my childhood, I can’t help but smile at fond memories that naturally spring up, like lightning bugs in the night sky, each memory pops in and out of existence for a brief beautiful moment; however, there’s something empty about these flashy memories. They disappear just as quickly as the moments that birthed them. I laughed until it hurt with friends, saw some beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and achieved pretty cool things; however, I woke up the next morning, or week, or month, and couldn’t ignore the fact that my life had not changed that much. The pleasant memories were enough to bring about five minutes of joyous nostalgia, and yes, that is a beautiful feeling, but nostalgia and memories never felt like enough to sustain a fulfilled life.

Picking Up A Burden For Humanity

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, but gradually, during the course of my gap year, I found myself unable to enjoy the mindless entertainment that characterized my childhood. Trust me, I’ve tried. On days where I do nothing but play nine games of League of Legends, I feel antsy, tired, and empty. The urge to do something came out in the moments of silence between League of Legends where I realized that when I won or lost, I didn’t feel anything. I just clicked play again out

Sitting at home and seeing my friends go off to college or other gappers start internships or companies, I realized that the world goes on whether or not I’m with it. As a kid, it didn’t matter how long I played video games or watched television because tomorrow would be the exact same as today. Time was just something that adults complained about or a reference to see when our favorite tv shows would come on. Maybe it’s the realization of the terrifying gravity of time passing. Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t ignore the idea that no matter how many shows I watch or how good I get at video games the aching feeling in my chest won’t go away. Maybe it’s the introduction of the complete freedom to plan out my days and activities that this gap year has given me. Maybe it’s my maturing mind–farts. Regardless of how I got here, I can’t sit still. Something within me demands to be channeled and set free. Then comes the question that truly symbolizes the end of your childhood–what do I do with my life? There’s a popular quote by Jordan Peterson that I think about often: 

“The purpose of life is to find the largest burden you can bear and bearing it.” -Jordan Peterson

After realizing that the idyllic lazy and carefree life that is so often dreamed about is not at all desirable or feasible, I began to introduce more responsibilities in my life–nail school, writing, meditating, reading. For the first time in my life, I successfully implemented a schedule. As I woke up at 4:30 am to read and write before nail school, I truly believe I had never felt a deeper sense of peace in my entire life. The words I had read from Jordan Peterson had materialized and filled the hole in my chest. Meaning (in the personal and not cosmic sense) is intimately connected with responsibility.

Despite the many things I failed to learn in high school, calculus, Spanish, how to be a good boyfriend…one lesson that burned itself into my skin was that I could never work hard at things that I did not care about (cough* all schoolwork cough*). Through my experiences in high school, I also realized that personal ambition was never enough to motivate me. Being the best at something was a tantalizing idea, but it never managed to get me out of my warm bed in the cold morning–if it were, I might have managed to be a better debater or volleyball player. It was only when I stopped thinking about what I enjoyed doing and started thinking about what I wanted to put out into the world that I managed to wake up on time and slowly fill the empty hole in my chest.

“…being able to feel, by way of one’s own subjective viewpoint, that ‘I can make contributions to other people.’ It is at that point that, at last, we can have a true sense of our own worth.– Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitaka Koga 189

For a long time, I’ve tried to put a name to the aching in my chest that I felt on quiet nights. In the end, I’ve come to realize that the ache is a call for meaning. While I will never have meaning in the cosmic sense, through trying to bear a burden for humanity, I feel the aching in my heart gives way to a calm peace. To live a life where I chase my own desires–traveling the country, chasing the validation of girls, achieving my dreams–is to live a life only for myself, and I can’t help but feel that that’s an empty life. There have been moments in my life where I have achieved great things, and in all of those moments, the presence of people I care about has made them worthwhile. To share my life and feel that I matter to people outside of myself, even in this small and brief window of consciousness, is enough to fill a heart. A certain strength comes from a life-focused on contributing to the human story. It allows us to endure those hard moments and to feel like there is a reason to keep going, but when our lives are lived only to bring us our own pleasure, what keeps us going when life inevitably makes us suffer. When the alarm clock roars in the morning (sometimes it meows at noon), I sit and contemplate whether it’s worth getting out of bed, and the days that I feel like I am worth something to the world around me, are the days where I can brave the cold mornings.

This blog, my writing, is the burden I am trying to carry. As I live and read and reflect, I constantly find myself growing through the ideas I’ve learned from. It’s only been six months since the beginning of my gap year, but I feel like a completely different person. For one of the first times in my life, I feel at peace with my place in the universe and the path that I am heading down. Daily meditation has grounded me in the present and allowed me to walk through life, enjoying each step. Books like Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown made me look inside of myself and examine what it means to be vulnerable. As a direct consequence, I’ve shared the parts of myself that I’ve always been ashamed of to my friends, and I have experienced deeper connections than ever. The ideas that I learned within the last six months transformed my life, and while I’m not arrogant enough to think that my writing is good enough to change the lives of millions or even a single person, I hope to leave just a few people thinking “How should I live my life in order to feel more happy and content”, “I wonder why I do the things I do?”, “Maybe I should shoot my shot with that cute girl?” If I can make even one person more conscious of themselves and their place in the universe, that is a burden I would gladly choose to carry.

Forgiving Myself

I try to live a purposeful life and carry the heaviest burden that I can, but sometimes, I look on my back and see myself carrying a pebble. At every turn, I see boulders all around me. Climate change. Racial inequality. Deaths caused by preventable diseases. The world has no shortage of problems, and when I look at the pebble on my back, I can’t help but feel that I need to do more–that I need to be more. That’s a dangerous feeling. Before long, that feeling results in you shouldering more than you can possibly bear. The weight of the world rests on your shoulders, but you’ll never be strong enough to carry that burden. Inevitably, you will crumble, losing yourself to the world that you tried to save.

There are so many problems in the world, and with every passing second, the amount of time before the next disaster, the next innocent death, the next weeping mother, closes in on us. All of those problems matter. Those people need to be helped, but how can you help all of the people in the world who need your help? You can’t. 

For a long time, I felt enormous guilt for never having been an activist. I never marched through the streets, I never got tear-gassed, I never stood on the front lines and screamed for the needle of equality to inch forward. Throughout high school, I sat comfortably in my room playing League of Legends while innocent people suffered. Should I look at myself in the mirror and feel disgusted or disappointed that I have not been the beacon of hope that the world so desperately needs? Is it better to feel the full brunt of the world and its burdens on your shoulders? I don’t think so. The only way to alleviate the weight of the world from your shoulders is to forgive yourself. You cannot care about every single pressing problem and injustice in the world. Forgive yourself for not being God. 

Let me be clear: this is NOT an excuse for inaction. It is a call for acceptance. Accept where you are at in the world, and accept that you cannot carry the burdens of the world. Maybe you’re barely able to carry the burden of your own life–that is okay. For some of us, it can be a struggle just to get out of bed in the morning and continue to exist–that is okay. Remember that your existence by itself is contributing to the human story. Every day that you get up to exist and every smile you give contributes to the world. Do what you can. Right now. As you are. Forgive yourself for not being perfect. Forgive yourself for not being who you should be; however, never close your eyes to the burdens that exist around you. It is one thing to clean your own room before going out to change the world, it is another to close the curtains and pretend the outside world doesn’t exist. Be aware of the deep and real problems that exist and try to learn what you can, but forgive yourself for not always being on the front lines.

During my gap year, I tried to take the time to deepen my understanding of some of the problems that plague this country. I learned that even if we are not responsible for the wrongs in the world, we are not exempt from the responsibility of the historical processes that created the world that we were born into. I learned about how invalidating it can be to have to prove that your lived experiences are real. I learned how the implicit bias of a society can alter and change the way an entire class of people carries themselves in the world. I learned about how non=affordable public housing can trap impoverished people in a deadly and dehumanizing cycle of poverty. Looking back on my life, there were moments where I wish I had known more so that I could have spoken out. There are moments where I was unconscious of the harmful effects of my rhetoric to those around me. I forgive myself for not having known better.

Now, I am more conscious of the problems that plague the world than I was a year ago, and I am trying to put the things I learned out into the world via my writing, hoping that it can just slightly color the way a person sees themselves or the world. Despite my efforts, it still feels like I am throwing pebbles into an ocean. Ripples appear with each pebble, but those ripples quickly become lost in the infinite size of the ocean. That’s okay.

Accept that you might only be carrying a pebble right now. Carry the pebble that you are able to carry with pride. Tomorrow, a week, or maybe a month from now, that pebble will seem lighter because you’ve grown stronger. Then pick up another pebble and carry that one too. Eventually, those pebbles become boulders, and those ripples will become waves.

Books I referenced in this post:

Kishimi, Ichiro, and Koga Fumitake. Courage to Be Disliked: How to Free Yourself, Change Your Life and Achieve Real Happiness. Allen & Unwin, 2019.
Brown, Brene. Gifts of Imperfection. Random House Publishing Group, 2020.

  • Clare Ashcraft
    Posted at 18:39h, 07 April Reply

    This post is the most elegant description of how I’ve felt for years- so thank you for that. I often feel paralyzed in comparison to my peers, by the enormity of issues we face. If I focus on sweatshops, how do I tell the genocide victims their suffering is not enough? If I focus on polarization and social media algorithms, who will care for the sexual assault victims? It is difficult out of millions of pebbles, to chose which five I can balance, but important to realize that I can’t even see one million pebbles, and out of the ones in my view, which can I create effective change within. Beyond that, you also touch on the balance between education and action. As much as I want to read everything, that does nothing other than enrich my personal knowledge, which means nothing if that knowledge is never contributed outward. Where is the line drawn between content consumption and creation?

    Today I got a news alert about ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia and I swiped away instinctively without reading it. I immediately felt horrible, but I couldn’t find the article to go back and read. I consider how much I am “allowed” to willfully ignore in this way. How much I can carry, and how I can better anticipate how much these rocks will weigh before picking them up, and what the consequences are of dropping a rock.

    I have my opinions on Jordan Peterson, and I think that pleasure is a better measure of purpose than carrying the most burdens, but there is overlap. I am happiest and most fulfilled when carrying at least a moderate amount of burden; it does stave off the empty feeling writhing in my gut. The tricky part is deciding which burdens are making me stronger and more fulfilled and which are only making me sweat. I do believe there is a space where one can carry more than they should; where they are hurting themselves more than helping, but not yet falling over entirely. I wonder if that is a line ever worth crossing, and what for. Again, how does my mental health compare to climate change or human rights violations? Who can dictate the worth of atrocities and rank them like best-seller lists and how does personal wellbeing interact with that list?

    I think the limits of what one can carry are worth exploring, but how does one do that when the limit is constantly fluctuating? Some days I cannot carry all I did yesterday or last year, and that’s okay, but how do I know before I reach that limit? I don’t have clear answers to any of these questions, and this is an extremely long comment already, but I just wanted to share some of my ruminations on the post. Thank you, I love reading your work 🙂

    • Alex Le
      Posted at 04:50h, 08 April Reply

      Thank you so much for your comment! It means the world to me that you enjoy my writing, truly. In regards to the thoughts you shared, I understand everything that you mentioned. Just the fact that I am able to choose my burdens is an extremely privileged position to be in, and I still constantly feel like I am not doing enough. The thing that I always tell myself is that small and consistent steps are much better in the long run than over-straining myself and collapsing under pressure. Underachieving that consistently grows and strengthens over time can manage to create quite the ripple. Thanks again for your thoughts!

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