You know the moments. You’re on the elevator with a complete stranger. You’re just outside of the fitting rooms while your significant other is trying some things on. You’re stuck at a stoplight or a bus stop. You’re waiting to be seated at a restaurant. You’re waiting to receive your food at a restaurant. You’re waiting for the bill at a restaurant. You’re on the couch at home by yourself with nothing to do. There’s a space—a gap. It must be filled.
What is that space? We don’t really want to know. Everything was going smoothly—time well spent. I was engaged in something good, something meaningful. Now I’m bored/confused/anxious. Quick, fill the space with something!
With what? Maybe Candy Crush. The instant gratification feels nice for a bit. Maybe send a text for no other reason than to send a text message. It’s been a little while since I talked to that person anyway. Maybe I just received a text message? Better check. Maybe that feeling I thought I felt was actually my phone trying to get my attention. Yes, someone needs me! I have purpose again.
Or put headphones in and stream a song or two. Or tweet about something random. Or open up some tabs and start perusing what people are buzzing about in cyberworld. Is there some celebrity feud going on?
Have you ever caught yourself trying to fill the gap?
We don’t do well with the stillness. We’re uneasy about being amongst strangers when we have gobs of friends online. Uneasy during moments of utter quiet or uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
We think we’re in sync when we’re doing what everyone else seems to do: constantly moving from one thing to the next, sometimes doing multiple things at once, turning downtime into some sort of activity that makes us feel good. The gap, the bit of unscheduled time, is an abomination—it has to be filled with something. The gap feels like the nothingness of the empty universe—like our mortality bumping into us. You only live once. Better fill it up with stuff. If I can go from thing to thing and plow through the gaps then maybe I can avoid my mortality altogether. Objects in motion stay in motion, right?
In the gaps, we often feel that we’re missing out. Here I am basically getting old on the couch doing nothing, and I just saw on Instagram that everyone else is living the life of their dreams. But perhaps there’s something even deeper that we’re missing out on. After all, if you’re at an amazing concert and you’re still checking your phone in-between songs during the show—still feeling like when you check that everyone else is living the life of their dreams and you’re not—you have a problem.
What if the gap is not nihilistic space infiltrating our lives, but precisely the unstructured, unallocated time we need to rediscover some of what’s great about ourselves and our world. Maybe uncertainty about what happens next is not wasted time, but a chance for serendipity.
Serendipity. Today, it sounds like something really old-fashioned: the sort of thing that typifies romantic comedies on videotape. Someone just got a new job in a place they think they’re going to hate; someone’s flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in town for another night; somebody has to go to Smalltown, Nowhere for the weekend, with seemingly nothing to do. But—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly where they magically run into the person who ends up being their soulmate.
Could it happen in real life? Of course.1 in 3 people now find their spouse through online dating services, but that means 2 out of 3 still discover each other in-person. Some find it through friends and mutual acquaintances. Others, through participation in some kind of common activity: at work, at a bar, in class, and the like. There’s something poetic and pleasantly old-fashioned about romance found without any assistance from an ideal match algorithm or swiping through profiles in an app. Serendipity can work wonders for relationships.
But I doubt most of us expect to find the love of our life while waiting for our fitness class to start or stuck in line getting our morning coffee. So what else might be serendipitously discovered in the gaps?
Good ideas, for starters. For many, open periods of time are when their brain begins to dance around through countless bits of experience, thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and then make interesting—sometimes unlikely—connections between them. When we’re perpetually filling in the gaps as they come, we’re crowding out the potential for our mind to do some of its most unique work. There’s an opportunity there to slide into your creative process. It could be exactly the moment you find that melody you’ve been hoping to come up with, that thing you’ve wanted to write but didn’t know where to start, or pinpoint a change you need to make in your life that you hadn’t noticed before. Oftentimes, the best stuff shows up when we’re not trying.
What else? In the company of strangers, we might have interesting conversations we would never have otherwise. As an introvert, this is really difficult for me. In an elevator or on public transportation, or anywhere else a person can get stuck with people you don’t know, I feel an urgent need to get my eyes locked onto my phone to appear too busy for small-talk. But in the times that I’ve risked it and resisted the urge, I’ve been fortunate to talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ve seen your social media friends post pictures of their cat and their lunch before; you probably haven’t heard anything like what the person across from you on the train could tell you if you’re up for talking.
OK, and what else? Ultimately, so much of the world is there for discovery. Have you ever people-watched? It’s the best. Seriously. Humans do some of the craziest, weirdest, most self-centered, colorful things. In just about any public place, you have a front row seat. Look around for a couple minutes, and you’re likely to see something absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. Maybe then you Tweet about it–because it has to be shared. Or maybe you just keep it to yourself, because that one’s too priceless. You might need that memory to bring you back to a good place on a bad day, or maybe the good ideas bulb lights up and you realize what you witnessed would make for a perfect part of something you’re going to create.
If you had desperately busied yourself with your phone or something else to fill the gap, you would have missed something great.
If you’re going to have fear of missing out, have fear of missing out on the unexpected. Not the concerts, the vacations, and the get-togethers at the new spots all the hipsters are going to. Those kinds of things will always be around, and if you’re an active enough person you’ll get to do lots of them over time. Be concerned about missing out on the sparks of creativity and unique encounters that are only going to happen once and then disappear forever. Too few of those and you’ll really feel some anxious emptiness in your life. The gaps are there to remind you that some of the best things are not planned or expected, and you’ll miss out on them if you’re always trying to do something else. The gaps hold everything together.