Staring into the darkness, Trent M. Kays is forced to reflect on who he really is.
I’m afraid. I’m afraid of failing, and while fear is little in my life, the fear of failure looms over me. It fills me, and at times, it has controlled me. I don’t find this unusual. As a matter of fact, I find it completely normal. I think most people are afraid of two things: failing and the unknown. Unfortunately, my fear of failing is only reconfirmed by the emptiness I sometimes feel as I stare in the mirror every morning.
I brush my teeth, comb my hair, clean my ears, use a neti pot, and go about my day. However, I’m overwhelmingly concerned with doing something wrong or making a poorly informed decision. I didn’t realize how strong these feelings were until I was forced, through my own accord, to recognize and stare into the same emptiness that fills me at times.
It happened innocently. I stumbled on something on the Internet, and in the same way I often tell my students to explore and be inquisitive, I told myself there was nothing in this something for me to worry about, and I still feel the same. But, what I discovered shocked me, shook me, and mesmerized me. I am no stranger to odd things. I collect odd things, treasures, much like other people collect seashells. I pride myself on it because I’m more interested in the weird than the normal.
My something, the oddity that shook me and took me to a place of extreme self-doubt and emptiness, is a photography exhibit. The particular picture (available here) is part of a series titled “Shape” by French photographer Quentin Arnaud.
Initially, I didn’t know what or how I felt as I gazed into the dead and dark emptiness enveloping the pseudo-person in the photo. It amazed me, frightened me, confused me, controlled me, and consumed me. I became obsessed with the photo, and I didn’t and still don’t truly know why. However, the one total consuming feeling I found lingering deep inside my soul as I stared at the photo was fear. Fear, unlike any I’ve ever felt, consumed me. The emptiness and blackness of the eyes controlled and filled me with paralyzing fear.
As I mentioned before, there are few things I fear, and there are even fewer things that instill a paralyzing distress in me that strikes at my soul, but this one photograph did. It bothered me, it made me uncomfortable, it made me afraid, and it made me want to look away, yet as much as I tried to look away, the more it mesmerized me.
It was only after talking to a dear friend of mine, I realized why the fear I felt staring into the emptiness of the photo paralyzed me: I projected myself into its emptiness. I saw myself in the darkness and the eternity resting in the hallow expression of the man in the photo with the expressionless face. There is nothing, just emptiness, and it frightened me.
So, I am afraid, and it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying because as I stare into the empty face, I see, feel, and relive everything at which I’ve ever failed. Perhaps that is the most distressing for me: reliving my failures. We’re often taught to put our failures behind us and move forward, but how do we react to an instance where we are confronted with every failure we’ve ever experienced? How do we deal with the anguish and overload of emotion?
I wept. Of all the emotions I could feel, of all the emotions I did feel, the strongest emotion emanating from the depths of my soul was sadness. Sadness so primal and visceral, I openly wept staring into the emptiness of the face in the photo. Yet, despite this immense sadness, a sadness that made me long for an eternity of silence, I couldn’t look away. My eyes were glued to the photo—much in the same way onlookers’ eyes are glued to a train wreck. The emptiness was my train wreck.
I wanted to look away. I needed to look away, but I couldn’t look away from something that was so much myself. I don’t know how long I stared at the photo, and I can’t recall anything happening around me; the emptiness controlled me and left me to confront myself. The fear I felt was the fear of failure in that I saw the emptiness, the nothingness of one who has never achieved something noteworthy. It was the nothingness of one who will die quietly in his sleep never knowing the sweet embrace of impact, of knowing he changed the world—even if it was only a small slice of his tiny existence.
I think that’s what lives deep down in all of us. We often aren’t afraid of what is happening but, instead, of what might’ve or could happen. It’s an uncomfortable position to inhabit, yet it is a place I find myself sometimes. I’m not afraid of much because I find life an incredible and engaging adventure, and I feel like both the positive and negative, the good and bad, form integral experiences and feelings, which help us move from chapter to chapter in our lives.
Lao Tzu once remarked, “It is because of its emptiness that the cup is useful,” and I wonder if the same couldn’t be said for the photo and for what I occasionally feel within myself. It does frighten me: the emptiness within the face in the photo and the emptiness I can feel within myself. But, perhaps, that is in itself strength because I can choose what to fill that emptiness with.
I was afraid. I wept. I shook. I was nervous. I felt inadequate, useless, and forlorn, all of which were brought on by a simple photo. It’s amazing how simple things can have such power over us, yet once we understand that power, we can snatch it back and be born anew.
The fear exists, and I will destroy it. The emptiness abounds, but I will fill it.
—Photo by Quentin Arnaud