Imagine a kid sitting on the floor playing with blocks, building towers and knocking them down with glee.
Along comes a butler wearing a tuxedo with bow tie and cummerbund, and carrying a silver tray with a silver dome. Presenting the tray in front of the child’s curious eyes, the butler then lifts the dome with a flourish, revealing… nothing. The plate is perfectly clean. It had just been polished! As the butler quickly withdraws these two silver objects, now keeping them behind his back, the child is left to stare into empty space. After a moment of befuddlement, the dear youngster begins to bawl.
Sad! But perhaps there’s humor in this scene too, if we see it as philosophy. In the beginning, the kid was perfectly content, wanting nothing, needing nothing. The butler arrived of his own accord, by no summons of the child. In the butler’s flowery performance, the child was not harmed in any way – never touched, and not a word was spoken. All that happened: the child was presented with empty space – the same empty space that had been there in the room all along – momentarily captured under the lid, and then freed to intermesh with all the other empty space that had also been there all along. Nothing was given, but nothing was taken.
Still, the content of the plate – emptiness – harmless emptiness – was experienced as a shock, a traumatic letdown, because it defied the expectation created by the butler’s flowery performance. Something interesting was supposed to be under that lid. Such expectation had only been formed moments before the nothingness was revealed, but the anticlimax blossomed into minutes of ensuing distress.
When children grow to be adults – do they, do we develop a new way of handling disappointment so that the inner experience of it is less painful? Or do we remain as children inside, only now equipped with adult powers of inhibition, so that our bawling and sobbing becomes silent, invisible?
When we don’t get what we want, do we respond with the kind of true acceptance that brings calm, or with the kind of grudging acceptance that is merely a tantrum suppressed, even more painful than a child’s fit because it does not come with release?
I was waiting for a subway train the other day that was supposed to arrive shortly. Then an announcement said it would be fifteen minutes delayed. I began struggling… with myself. “Damn! This is going to screw up all my plans!” As my mind began to work through all of the negative consequences of the delay, as if this thought process could change the reality of the situation, I imagined the covered butler’s tray, held in front of my eyes by two hands with fancy cufflinks: the lid is withdrawn with a rapid flourish. On the plate, there is… no train! I start to cry. Rather, I imagine myself starting to cry. And this makes me laugh. It helps me.
Writing is one area of my life that seems very “adult” – I am using adult words to describe adult ideas. My biggest challenge in writing — abandoning essays because I cannot make them good enough – perfectionism – seems like an adult challenge. But I’ve come to think of it in relation to the butler and the child.
If a sentence doesn’t work out the way I’d like, or if I can’t find the right transition between two ideas, or if I can’t make the essay concise enough, or if the mere act of writing and editing isn’t as pleasurable and satisfying as I had hoped it would be – that’s a disappointment. Inside me there’s a crying child who didn’t get what he wanted. I was hoping my point about Aristotelian ethics would come out better! I wanted some candy to eat! I’m sitting in my chair, hands on the keyboard, looking very much like an adult, but somewhere within there’s a tantrum going on, hidden through my adult skill at inhibition. But I haven’t been harmed. I’m perfectly all right. All that happened is: a plate of emptiness was uncovered.