How to conquer the great empty tomb

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Illustrations by John P. Weiss.

Have you ever felt empty? Like whatever magic elixir that used to fuel your creative life just sort of evaporated? That’s exactly how Jennifer felt.

She worked at a great design firm in San Francisco. Had a decent apartment and a close circle of friends. But her artistic and creative soul felt all used up.

The other day Jennifer was reading an art magazine in a cafe when she encountered this quote from Gustave Flaubert:

“For a long time now my heart has had its shutters closed, its steps deserted, formerly a tumultuous hotel, but now empty and echoing like a great empty tomb.”


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Jennifer could relate to Flaubert. Like him, her creative heart felt like a “great empty tomb.” Where once she had been full of ideas and artistic yearning, now her energy and enthusiasm for work had waned. She felt adrift.

On her way home from work recently, Jennifer bumped into Sid. He was a local homeless man with kind eyes and a knack for charming birds. Some said he was a mystic of sorts, but Jennifer never went for such silliness.

He could often be found in Washington Park communing with the parrots of telegraph hill. Or feeding the local pigeons.

“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer said to Sid. “I didn’t see you there when I came around the corner. That’s what I get for always rushing!”

“No worries,” Sid said. “Maybe you should make some time for birds.”

“Make some time for birds?” Jennifer asked.

“I see a lot of people in this city. Always racing to appointments, in a rush. They think they’re busy and getting ahead but really they haven’t learned how to do hard things.”

Sid reached down to a small cardboard box and opened it. Inside was a juvenile, white-crowned sparrow.

“Why do you have a little bird in a box?” Jennifer asked as she gazed down at her wristwatch.

“Oh, I found him sick in the park, but I’ve been feeding him and taking care of him. He’s almost ready to be on his own again.” Sid smiled. “I guess we all have times when we fall down and need to rest before we figure out where we’re going next.”

“Sid, you said something about learning ‘how to do hard things.’ What do you mean?” Jennifer wanted to get home, but she was intrigued by this enigmatic bird whisperer.

“Oh, I just mean that people take the easy route. The path of least resistance. Not that they don’t work. I mean, sometimes they even kill themselves at work. But they’re not doing the hard thing. They’re not listening to their heart and pursuing that.”

“I guess we all have to make a living before we go find ourselves,” Jennifer said.

“Maybe,” Sid said, adding “But our hearts always know when we’re living a lie. Do you know what true hell is? It happens when, on the day you die, you meet the person you could have become. If we are to conjure our true selves and our creative best, we need to do hard things. We need to make the changes. Have the courage to walk our true path.”

Sid pointed at the MacBook laptop protruding from Jennifer’s business satchel and said, “In another life, I worked in the tech industry. I remember Steve Jobs. He said something that I never forgot.” And with that, Sid recited the following Steve Jobs quote:

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Jennifer stared into Sid’s eyes and nodded. His words struck a deep chord. She realized in that instant that she didn’t want to grow old, die and never become her best self. Her truest self.

She realized that much of her life, she made decisions to please other people. Her parents. Boyfriends. Bosses at work. She needed to take a break, and reevaluate her future life path.

The following month Jennifer took a long vacation. She had an MFA in painting and wanted to spend more time at the easel. She wondered what happened to her dreams of becoming a fine artist?

She drove to Lake Tahoe to visit friends, do some skiing and a little outdoor painting.

One afternoon she drove into the mountains and found a clearing to paint. The air was crisp as she set up her easel.

Everything seemed to be falling into place. The small oil studies she produced were loose, colorful and exciting. She started to feel that old sense of excitement and possibilities.

The last several years at the design firm had denied her the time to paint. Her dreams of becoming a fine artist had faded.

Until now.

Her fortuitous conversation with Sid sparked some serious introspection. It’s not always easy to dive deep into your heart of hearts, but doing so can uncover painful truths and exciting new possibilities.

Jennifer figured out why she was feeling so empty inside. She had lost her way. She had fallen down, just like Sid’s sick sparrow. And like the sparrow, Sid had found a way to help Jennifer, too.

She knew now that she would have to do some hard things. Make some changes, so that she could pursue the fine arts that fueled her passions so many years ago.

Just then she felt a flutter of movement beside her. A small bird landed on her easel. He was eyeing some of the trail mix Jennifer had in a bag beside her palette.

“Are you one of Sid’s friends?” Jennifer said.

She slowly pinched a bit of the mix and held it out in her palm. The small bird hopped on her hand and gently began pecking at the food.

“If only Sid could see this,” Jennifer thought to herself.

For the first time in several years, a sense of self-assurance and calm washed over her. She realized that her career and painting passion were not mutually exclusive.

It was possible to change aspects of her schedule and carve out more time for her fine art. It was possible to become a pragmatic juggler and craft a more balanced and fulfilling life.

When the little bird took flight from her easel, it was like he was carrying away the unhappiness that had been in her heart. She felt a renewed sense of joy and hope.

Weeks later, as Jennifer was on her way to a figure painting class, she bumped into Sid.

“There she is,” said Sid with a smile. “A little friend of mine said you were back in front of your easel, painting.”

Jennifer laughed. “Yes, it’s true. In fact, I have to thank you. Our past conversation got me thinking about my priorities. But I have to ask, how did you know I was painting again?”

“I see the canvas panels and brushes poking out of your satchel,” he said.

“Oh, yeah, of course,” Jennifer said.

“But my little bird friend also told me about it,” Sid added.

“Oh, did he now,” Jennifer said, figuring Sid was joking around.

“Yes,” Sid added, “He told me you painted a beautiful vista in the mountains, and he appreciated the snack, too.”

What about you?

Is there a dream in your heart that fell victim to the passage of time and responsibilities of life? Has your heart fallen victim to Flaubert’s “great empty tomb?” If so, you’re not alone.

Many of us set aside our creative passions in order to face the hard realities of making a living. Car payments, mortgages, children and health care all demand our attention.

Who has time to paint, write poetry, make music or pursue creative activities? After all, there are bills to pay and demands on our time.

So, we soldier on and bury our passions. The years click by. Then, one day, when the kids are grown and our careers are over, we try to rekindle our creative passions.

We dive into those watercolor classes or pottery workshops, but a little part of our soul weeps. “Why did I put this off my whole life?” we ask ourselves.

If you wait too long, it might be too late!

The good news is that you don’t have to abandon your creative pursuits. You just have to learn how to design your life, instead of reacting to it. And, you don’t need a mystical homeless man to inspire changes.

Take some time to closely study your schedule. Search for pockets of time. You might think there are none, but there are.

Swap out television time for your creative passion. Get up earlier. Learn to politely but firmly say no to commitments, clubs, and obligations that aren’t necessary. Stop worrying about disappointing others. If they truly care about you, they will understand.

Learn to become a pragmatic juggler of your time. You’d be surprised how creative you can get with your schedule.

Bit by bit, these pockets of time you claw back will allow you to pursue your creative passion. Doing so will inspire and reenergize your creativity.

Before you know it, you’ll have crafted new routines. The creative passion and artful work you long neglected will come back to life, and like one of Sid’s birds, you’ll find yourself flying high again.

Before you go

I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint landscapes and write about life. Get my free newsletter here.