The red lights at the railroad crossing began flashing and the barrier arms started dropping as I approached the intersection yesterday morning. I halted the ol’ Camry, put the gears in neutral, set the parking brake and waited for a train to rumble down the tracks.
However, there wasn’t a train. The tracks were empty. I looked both ways but didn’t see a locomotive from either direction. Then I thought there must be a track maintenance crew testing the warning mechanisms. Again, there were no railroad crews anywhere in sight.
It seemed like a good idea to make a U-turn so I could continue driving. I checked the rearview mirror and noticed a Norfolk City Police SUV a couple of places behind. I didn’t want to get cited for an illegal turn, so I remained parked. The line-up of vehicles was stopped for nothing.
While waiting for nothing, I analyzed my use of the word “nothing”. Should I have thought, “I’m stopped here for no reason”? Well, not really. I was stopped here because the railroad crossing arms are down and it is unlawful to drive around them. There is a cop behind me. So there are a few reasons I’m stopped. Maybe there’s an invisible ghost train on the tracks. I continued the mental grammar game for a few more minutes and concluded that everyone at the railroad crossing was stopped for nothing.
After another minute or two passed, the warning lights stopped flashing and the barrier arms opened the crossing for travel. I put the car in gear and proceeded. I remained puzzled as to why the railroad crossing lights and arms had been activated for nothing.
The word “nothing” might be one of the most overused pronouns in the English language. The most obvious meaning of the word indicates an absence of anything. Mathematically, it is a synonym for zero. In esoteric jargon, nothing is an arcane principle that is experienced during meditation. In popular usage, nothing indicates something unimportant, insignificant, or irrelevant. Maybe we expect to find an object or anticipate an experience but there is no object or the experience didn’t happen–such as my expectation of a train at the crossing. Nothing was on the tracks.
I remember a few times during childhood when my siblings and I caused enough noise to violate dad’s comfort level. He’d come into the room and ask, “What’s going on in here?” Reflexively, we’d answer, “nothing”. His angry reply was sometimes, “Well, it sounds like there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. Be more quiet!”
There is the famous line from poet Robert Frost I like. “Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say and keep on saying it.” Frost certainly had something to say about nothing.
A popular selling point is the saying, “You’ve got nothing to lose.” Mark Twain used “nothing” when he proclaimed, “Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.” How many times have we heard that nothing beats a smile?
Is nothing the same as nothingness? That’s altogether another view of nothing. In Zen teachings, nothingness does not mean stuff does not exist at all. Nothingness implies that stuff lacks an independent, inherent existence. Although we might conventionally see a chair as a chair, in a real sense the object requires dependence upon causes and conditions.
The chair exists in dependence upon temporal causation–that is somebody created the object. The object has constituent parts: atoms that make up the object’s physical mass, the shape necessary to provide a place for humans to sit, plus the conceptual definition or categorization e.g a piece of furniture. Although these ingredients are present, the object lacks anything more than our definition of the object as a chair. This lack of anything else about the chair denotes nothingness. At first, nothingness seems complicated, but when you sit awhile and contemplate the concept, it’s actually quite simple, in a wordless way.
In some way, nothing is like the wisdom of Socrates. He said, “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”
I have nothing more to say.