So much of life is about filling spaces. We fill our mouths with food; we fill drawers and cupboards with food and necessities; we fill conversation with words; we fill car parks with cars; we fill roads with vehicles; we fill towns with people; we fill fields with crops or animals; we fill maps with detail; we fill television schedules with programmes. We fill our eyes with social media; we fill our bags with shopping; we fill our bodies with comestibles and drugs; we fill our time with activities.
OUR BIOLOGY ENCOURAGES US TO FILL UP
We are evolved from creatures which survived by doing such things. An organism without an urge to ‘fill up’ would not get past childhood. We need an appetite for not only food, but knowledge, in order to grow into adults. But perhaps this legacy, this genetic inheritance, only goes so far. Perhaps there are times when it’s good to let the passion to consume subside, to let spaces become empty again, to reverse the flow even.
MODERN ECONOMIC THEORY IS BASED ON CONSUMPTION
Observe what you see in the news, and you will notice that we are obsessed with filling up capacity, and doing it at speed. We don’t even really mind what we are filling up – it could be people’s petrol tanks, supermarket shelves, bank accounts… it doesn’t really matter, as long as more of something is stocking up somewhere. Cyberspace is filling up with stuff, much faster than any corresponding force to empty it. It feels democratic to many… we are good at making things available; at providing choice.
IS CHOICE THE SAME AS FREEDOM?
But there comes a time when to much of something makes us feel sick. Being able to access a pleasure does not, we find, necessarily lead to pleasure. What goes wrong? With all this choice available, why aren’t we all delighted? Here are a few of the drawbacks to so much filling up:
- We bloat, physically and mentally. With so much intake, we acquire fat, both literally and metaphorically. Physical fat is our body over-storing things. It is designed to survive in scarcity, and we have over-provided for it. Mental fat is our mind collecting random thoughts without integrating them. They sit in our brains as fat sits in the body, weighing us down and making us unable to move. In both cases, we become passive citizens, lying down and inert.
- We lose our spaces. Our houses overfill with junk; our environment overfills with garbage. We build everywhere. Before we know it, we are so choked up with what we have accumulated, that we cannot breathe properly. And we can’t get rid of it, because we don’t have the skills to lose things. All our efforts and skills development have been about accumulation.
THE SKILLS NECESSARY TO CLEAR SPACE
What abilities do we have at our disposal for going the other way, for clearing space? We talked earlier about how our evolution might have developed us as ‘fillers-up’. What skills might we have, natural or acquire-able, for counteracting this filling up, for getting better at emptying ourselves and our spaces? If we can learn these skills, or tap into these inner resources, then we can become slimmer, more coherent, more spacious, better able to breathe, less burdened. (By slimmer, I mean less overwhelmed by unhealthy fat, mental and physical. If your fat helps you, then great. I don’t want to be slim-ist!)
I suggest the following are skills we’d all do well to cultivate:
- The ability to deny ourselves. This is incredibly unfashionable. But if we don’t develop this ability, we will get fatter, heavier, and less able to move, both mentally and physically. We have some evolved inner resources for self-denial, but they are often based around revulsion and fear. And yet we do deny ourselves things when we wish to keep them for others, so perhaps generosity to our future selves and future generations is something we can work on. We could also develop technologies for self-denial, such as time-locks on resources, and self-imposed limits on usage.
- The ability to deconstruct spaces. Again, this is not really fashionable. No one takes buildings down to make way for space. But we have some evolved abilities in this direction. For instance, our nesting instinct makes spaces available for new young. And (controversial, I know), natural mental responses such as depression and anxiety, if listened to and responded to, may be turned into a kind of clearing out or cleansing of our lives and processes, and result in a happy simplification of what was a sickly environment.
A COUPLE OF SUGGESTIONS
- If you want to, notice where you are over-accumulating. It could be too much fat; it could be too many unprocessed ideas. Be generous to your future self, and learn to deny yourself in the interests of others.
- Equally, maybe see how you can clear and simplify your environment. What can you do without? What spaces can you reclaim? What might your anxiety or depression be asking you to clear out of your life?
We are obsessed with filling things up – including ourselves. Our biology and our economic theories lead us this way. But it has left us fat, ignorant and space-deprived. We can counteract this illness by learning the arts of self-denial, simplification, generosity and clarity.