I am standing at the edge of a cliff, darkness surrounds me and the wind is blowing in every direction. I am terrified, panicked, panting as I strive to keep my balance. But it is too late, the edge slips out from under my feet and I fall into the unknown, into the abyss, into the void of nothingness.
I wake up drenched in sweat, relieved that the familiarity of my bedroom surrounds me and causes the terror recede.
Our terror of nothing is palpable. The thought of the void stretching out forever in emptiness and solitude makes our mouths go dry and our hands start to tremble. Children burst into tears at the threat of nothing ("If you don't clean your room you will get nothing for dessert!"), losers of contests are disappointed and empty handed, ("The winner gets the car, but you picked the wrong box so you go home with nothing!") and all of us hate the idea of not getting, not having, not seeing or doing. We all try our hardest to avoid nothing by filling every moment, every space and every whim of desire.
I have a complicated relationship to the word beyond fear and avoidance. I grew up with nothing as my religious identity. When I asked my parents to tell me what I was, what I believed in, they responded with the word nothing. As a child, I hated being nothing. I thought it made me an outsider and part of a weird, isolated family. The fact that we did not worship did not really isolate us at all, but I always feared that it was a secret, and that if people found out we were nothing they would shun us.
As a younger adult I shrugged off religion entirely and I managed not to think about it much. But I was confronted with it when I married into a religious family and had a five-year conflict about religion with my in-laws. They cleared up one thing for me: I was not nothing, I was wrong.
I liked being wrong less than I liked being nothing. That discomfort started me thinking about what I was instead of always stating what I was not.
After years of struggle, I decided that I was nothing after all. I decided that the formerly dreaded word was actually the most accurate description of my religious identity. I have heard numerous other words to describe my kind of belief, (or non-belief), and I didn't like any of them. Atheism is fine but it has the root "theo" Greek for God, and I prefer to avoid all reference to "him". Bright is not for me. I don't feel bright and I could never figure out what everyone else might be. Dull? Dim? Stupid? The other popular terms like Rationalist or Secular Humanist are good, I just like Nothing better.
So what does it mean to be Nothing? For one thing, the fear of nothing is no longer present. Nothing is more like a warm, inviting comfortable place than a stark landscape. It is not dark and lonely; it is a cozy room with a fire glowing and soft chairs to curl up in. There are beautiful views outside the large picture windows, a slide show of the most stunning sights on earth. The tops of mountains, the waves rolling in on the beach, the trees of the forest bending in the wind, rippling drops of rain on the lake.
Nothing is open to all possibilities. It is questioning, curious and always hopeful. The answers found in nothing are more questions; musings and riddles to keep the mind active and alert. There is no dogma here; no need to take things on blind faith, no one telling you that an absurdity is the truth because they say it is so.
Nothing allows me to be myself by being aware of who I am. It allows me to present myself to the world without the arrogance of those who think they have all the answers. Nothing permits me to be tolerant of others around me, and although it is hard to tolerate those who do not return the favor, I strive to do so.
Nothing has gone from a nightmare to a comfortable reality. What was a frightening concept has become a calming, centering idea. The nightmare is gone. Even my children proclaim their nothingness with pride. I have banished the shame and fear and we embrace what we are: a bunch of nothings who are really something.
Nica Lalli lives in Brooklyn, NY with her 2 children, her husband and her dog. Her book, "Nothing: Something to Believe In" was published in March by Prometheus Books.