Escape from the Empire of Nothing

Jack Donovan in his book Becoming a Barbarian has a chapter titled “The Empire of Nothing.” In it he offers a compelling critique of our current political and cultural milieu. In fact, he argues that it isn’t so much a culture that is being forwarded but an anticulture where there is no “Emperor, no center and no people.” Instead, the Empire of Nothing is a collection of businesses and institutions that have aligned against identity in some vague hope of “progress.”

I think Donovan is right.

And yet we all get caught up in the Empire of Nothing. We may confess that it is at odds with our beliefs, that it is even an enemy of our faith and convictions. But still, we follow along, we drink it in, we believe that it is important to our daily life. We must hear the reactions to the president’s latest tweet. We want to stay caught up on the newest news video that everyone has already reacted to. Such things fuel our sense of belonging and our need to be tuned in to whatever is currently considered popular and therefore essential. But it’s not.

I am reminded of this reality, perhaps more clearly in these turbulent times. I have a fond memory of backpacking with my wife for 24 days, just over two years ago, completely isolated from every form of popular media. In the backcountry of High Sierras, we had no cell phones, no text messages or emails, no Instagram posts or Facebook updates. We were clueless about the latest movies, celebrity gossip, or anything about the world of politics. Our concerns were simple and had to do with basic survival. Getting water and filtering it, setting up camp, cooking dinner, etc. Rituals sprang up around our day, how we moved and when. It was tailored to our needs, to how our bodies handled the hike the day before and what we anticipated down the trail. We talked about issues dear to us, about marriage and family, about our hopes and dreams for our children and how easily it can all go awry.

And amid all of that, I had unwittingly escaped from the Empire of Nothing. No TV or smart phone, no 24-hour news cycle meant that I was free to think about other things. Things that mattered. Things that were far more determinative of my happiness and wellbeing than anything any of the talking heads or bureaucrats had to say.

And I loved it.

It wasn’t until I came back to civilization that it hit me. I turned on the computer and the cell phone and saw all the headlines and special interest stories that have been carefully curated for me by all the right algorithms and advertisers. Here’s the thing: They weren’t much different from the ones I had left behind almost a month earlier. They weren’t any different from what I hear today. In fact, they were almost indistinguishable.

It was all a giant steaming pile of nothing. Nothing lasting, nothing of real value, nothing but a passing vapor. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Turns out, Solomon was on to something.

The issue, then, is what to do with this realization. How are we to live in the Empire of Nothing? How do we love? How do we forgive? How do we thrive?