Running from the Horror Vacui

Pasadena, California

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Running from the Horror Vacui

Introduced by scholars writing about the visual arts, the phrase, horror vacui, Latin for fear of empty space, partially explains our struggles with compulsions.

Consider just the ubiquitous, now-global problem of cell phone usage.

We talking monkeys, living out our fictional lives ignorant of how powerful mythological themes run them, have become increasingly terrified of aloneness. Running from aloneness becomes another layer of fictional theme, something like:

I must look away, I cannot stand being alone!

When not producing or consuming, we stare into these small screens, scrutinizing others’ lives on FB, texting or calling someone, or looking up information.

This all-too-human propensity, what the Greeks called kenophobia (fear of the empty), drives international media companies. They enable your capacity to avoid encountering yourself or to intimately encounter another.

Apple, the largest company in the history of humankind, just began offering cinematic content—as if its innumerable applications were inadequate to distract.

Disney, almost as large, began with one theme park, Disneyland, now metastasized into larger entertainment venues throughout the developed world. It similarly ensures you won’t have a minute to reflect on yourself, to face the horror vacui, or be fully present to the being of another person.

In your own homes, you observe individuals, couples, or entire families stare vacantly at television screens or, if not, at their cell phones or computers.

In restaurants, you see people, alone or with others, eyes locked onto their cell phones, striving to avoid the terror of aloneness.

Even at the theater, in those precious few minutes before the play begins, you’ll see most patrons staring at their phones. Their faces assume the tint of the reflected, bluish-light, accentuating their underlying terror.

Three primary trends cause such compulsive voyeurism.

First, whatever childhood wounds you’ve suffered—whether personal, social, or biological—elicit pain. That pain, in turn, can be avoided through such compulsive behaviors. However, the avoidance not only fails to address the pain, it actually worsens it by leaving potentially-addressed injuries unattended.

Second, even if miraculously free of such inner pain, your life is like boarding a cruise ship destined to crash, burn, and sink. By the time you’ve reached age 9 or so, you know this. You understand the absurdity of building a life that will, of necessity, vanish in the foreseeable future.

Third, last, and perhaps the worst trend, these vehicles of avoidance—the pervasiveness of stimulating screens—are habit forming. Great masses of humans expect the distraction, from self and other. It’s like the international water supply has been imbued with opium-like substance. We are deadened not by opiates but by entertainments.

Certainly not the only cause, but the habit of distraction, now gone global, contributes to mass shootings, acts of terrorism, and other signs of de-humanization.

Joseph Stalin once said:

One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

The horrible utterance occurred a half-century before mind-controlling and mind-numbing screens became epidemic.

More than 5,000 people died in the US alone from car crashes related to cell phone use in 2019. The number of deaths from people simply WALKING is increasing and rapidly approaching causing the same number of deaths.

Instead of using phones while driving or walking, we humans might engage others in meaningful conversation.

If alone, we might quietly reflect on our lives.

We might listen to the infinity of the immediate moment.

Aristotle’s applied the idea of horror vacui to physics, famously writing, nature abhors empty space.

Perhaps nature indeed abhors empty space, but we humans have a great deal to learn from it—about ourselves as well as about those we love.

The solution is simple:

Walk away from the screen, and—think, observe, listen, hear, feel, engage.

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How You Avoid the Moment — Part II — Terror of Uncertainty