The Vacuum Always Fills

In Opinion, Topical
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I am a bookworm, for better or worse. When I’m aiming to learn something new, I read and read. I dive deep and get lost there.

In 2010, before I embarked on my new occupation as a backpacker and vagabond, I researched the profession extensively. I read books and blogs. I vainly tried to negotiate the many contradictory do’s and don’ts on offer. But more than anything I obsessed over what to pack. Every packing list I came across seemed ludicrous. How could any such paltry inventory get me by for an indeterminate (but lengthy) period of time? Could I really carry my life on my shoulders?

I could, and I did, and anyone could do it too. Bringing the best, durable, multi-purpose items is important. Packing lists have real value. However, in hindsight, the single best piece of advice that I read wasn’t about how to fill my backpack—it was about the backpack itself.

The advice was this: mobility is paramount, so buy small. Buy as small a backpack as you can dare. Whatever size you have, you will fill the space. Whatever doesn’t fit, you don’t need.

I didn’t fully appreciate the wisdom of this at the time. Only later did I celebrate it as Grade A backpacker advice. But now I can see it in a broader sense—as good life insight in general.

We fill the space

We all fill the spaces of the world. If there’s more space, we expand to fill it. If there’s less, we contract. If there’s unused space, someone moves in to inhabit it.

Physical space is the obvious example. The story of the human race is one of migration. Where there was space, we moved in. With every further migration there were those who stayed behind, because spaces once inhabited are seldom abandoned. It is usually to someone’s advantage to stay, even in the worst situations. Indeed, the attraction between person and space almost seems like a law of nature—like air filling a vacuum. And so we inhabit the whole earth now, from veritable paradises to poor, arid hellscapes.

In an outward sense, physical spaces compete with one another (nation versus nation) while inwardly invite inclusion. The more members collectively operating in the physical space, the stronger it is.

So fully did I inhabit that space that there was no room for competition.

There are also occupational or activity-based spaces. Look at children, and siblings in particular. Seldom are they carbon copies of each other: they develop their own personalities, interests, and skills. One excels at this and the other excels at that. When I was a child (eldest of three) I was the nerd. When we got our first computer, I took an interest immediately. A new space had opened. I moved in and filled it with an expanding expertise. So fully did I inhabit that space that there was no room for competition. My siblings invested themselves in other spaces instead—my sister in art and my brother in mechanical ventures.

Inwardly, on a collective level, inclusion is very beneficial in these spaces. A business leverages the collective occupations of its employees to greater and greater reward. But outwardly there is less competition here than in the physical space. A resource-rich or strategic piece of land is a limited resource that people will go to war over. Opportunities, however, abound in the occupational and activity-based spaces. The only limit is imagination. Thus my brother didn’t murder me to assume the role of family tech guy; he struck out for another space instead.

There are emotional spaces, in our relations with others. These too are outwardly competitive, but inwardly they are particularly inclusive. We all know that intangible feeling of being in the presence of strong emotions—a funeral, for instance. The sadness is vast. It is big enough to accommodate any comers and too big to brook competition. Try feeling happy at a funeral; you won’t find it easy. The sadness out-competes all other emotions while simultaneously inviting participation. It basically demands participation. We are emotional beings, after all.

The most powerful space of all

There is one more space. It’s similar to the emotional space but operates at an even deeper, often subtle, level. It’s the most difficult to talk about because you can’t see, hear, feel, taste, or touch it. It’s limitless, but we fill it just the same: it’s the idea space.

Have you noticed that ideas never die? They go in and out of fashion, yes, but disappear entirely?


Like our ancestors who stayed behind on some godawful rock, there is always someone occupying even the worst idea spaces. There are still people who genuinely believe the Earth is flat. If this idea ever goes vacant, it won’t remain so for long. The vacuum always fills.

Like many people, I’ve struggled with the reality of Donald Trump’s presidency. My feelings have run the gamut—from shock, to anger, to deep sadness. I have a hard time understanding how an obvious narcissist was voted into a position of public service at any level, let alone our nation’s highest office. Literally the only qualification that matters for this post is compassion—a trait he is utterly lacking.

If you do not live a compassionate life, you actually voted for Donald Trump.

I’ve thought much about the idea space since November. Trump embodies a belief in American exceptionalism at the expense of all else. He has no concept of interconnectedness and is thus bereft of all compassion. This is the idea space he has brought to new national prominence—the ego space, if you will—and it quickly grew as large as it is because competing spaces aren’t competing hard enough.

Regardless of who you pulled the lever for, if you do not live a compassionate life you actually voted for Donald Trump. The space he now enjoys is not of his own creation but of ours. His ego space swelled to fill the compassion space that we collectively vacated. If our compassion was healthy and growing, Trump’s ego wouldn’t have had room to grow this big.

We do not have a Donald Trump problem: we have a compassion problem. Fighting him is a losing strategy; someone just like him will surely take his place. We must transform our hearts instead. While an erosion of compassion got us here, a blossoming of compassion can get us out. Then, not only will we vanquish him, but any who would follow.

This is the dance of the spaces—the endless exertion of forces. Our spaces affect others’ spaces to a virtually endless extent. Nothing happens in a bubble. All vacuums fill. If we can remember that, we can begin to take responsibility for our situation.

And proper action.

Cover photo © 2018 Gage Skidmore

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