She was mine. This city. This place. This country I had dreamed of since birth. You can trace my desire back to my earliest school assignments – all of which my dad kept, the sweet, sentimental guy.
So, it made no sense, that night in Parramatta. That feeling of abject misery and utter meaninglessness of existence.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher.
The emptiness of life hit me so hard that night as I walked back from a wonderful meeting of my small group. The amazing family I had found, the amazing love I felt, the deep compassion and grace I witnessed in that small group of seven or eight Aussies should have given me more than enough to breathe in my dreams with joy that night.
I was even doing what I longed to do there – what I’d been dreaming of doing since I began doing theatre in fifth grade. I was on tour in Australia, giving theatrical performances, sharing my deep love of Jesus with people who’d never heard His name. I was speaking with kids and teens who felt hopeless and helpless – and they were seeing hope for the first time.
How could I feel that my life was in vain at that moment that night? How could I feel the emptiness of the street was a representation of my soul?
I was literally living out my lifelong dream.
Yet, here I stood at midnight on a cool August evening, feeling as though snow might fall as I walked the lonely streets of Parramatta, Australia, a suburb of Sydney, my favorite city in the world, and I felt like everything I had been doing up to this moment in my life had all been in vain.
The words I had read not that long before now flooded my soul, a sort of bizarre balm to my spirit. Not comfort, but a validation from King Solomon, the man considered to have been the wisest man to ever live.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises…
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, ‘It is mad,’ and of pleasure, ‘What use is it?’ I searched with my heart… and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works… Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9 in part; 2:2-11 in part)
More verses flooded in.
“But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
These verses were more familiar. I had experienced a life-shaking crisis a few years earlier when my dad died suddenly, and these verses had crashed into my soul like a drowning oceanic wave.
That corner in Parramatta seared itself into my memory that night. I will always feel the intensity of that night, crushing my soul.
I nearly collapsed.
All my dreams had come true. And yet they were vain.
I was useless.
This life was useless. Totally worthless.
For the first time in my life, I was void of any desire. I cared for nothing. Not music, or theatre, or dance, or art, or marriage, or missions work, or friendship, or love. The very life of my life drained out and spilled into the moonlit night.
Who was I without my dreams? They’d been a part of my existence for as long as I could remember, since I was eight years old in the third grade and I’d written the first assignment I remember about Australia.
I’d given my entire life to God. My every ounce of being. My every dream. The essence of my soul, the essence of my life. And here I stood dreamless, void, and lost.
I couldn’t even speak to God. I couldn’t ask Him for help. I was just… there. I was alive and nothing more.
I think an hour or twelve must have passed before I finally set foot forward again to walk the remaining half mile to my temporary home Down Under.
A few days later, I determined that a few minor activities that I did to “kill the time” between ministry moments were part of the problem. I stopped those activities immediately, hoping this would restore the positive experiences I had within. But the following week, the same intense emptiness filled me once more.
Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, this was my first experience with true depression unrelated to a death or significant loss.
As my remaining days Down Under passed tick-by-tick, the sense of emptiness waned, and I again felt renewed and restored. I knew I had purpose. And returning to Australia someday to fulfill it permanently with a musical theatre ministry was on the distant horizon, waiting for me to find it.
That was 2011. Now, a decade later, I have experienced this same kind of deep emptiness a few times. Once, a long period of this filled my days while I dated an unpleasant, abusive man that I had yet to determine was truly abusive (I don’t throw that term around lightly, and my spirit and soul had to come to truly recognize that he was before I could call him that). I’ve experienced it a few times while being ill with COVID-19 and having my hopes of fulfilling a few dreams stripped away. I felt this depth just a week or so after launching the MockingOwl Roost in January 2021.
Like my body often becomes ill after a major push for some project or unavoidable task occurs, I’ve come to realize that this sense of vanity drops into my soul and crushes my spirit when I’ve fulfilled dreams or had them stripped away.
I am not a dreamer – I am a visionary. Perhaps this is why this intensity of emotions walls me in when dreams become reality or are taken from me.
I don’t have some grand solution for anyone experiencing the same thing. I wish I did! But the best thing I’ve learned in these times is to use the time for self-reflection and an examination of my core values.
Am I my dreams? Or are they a reflection of me? Who would I be without the dreams and plans I hold dear? What am I really putting my hope in?
These questions don’t make the sense of emptiness disappear. They don’t make everything “better” again, but they do give me the space to find out why I’m feeling this way and what might lie next along my path to a fulfilled life.