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How does one live a life full of nothing?

At some point in my working life I came across one of the most interesting but little remarked features of the psychology of police. It happened during one of those moments when I was exploring group dynamics with some experienced police officers. I was trying to uncover the patterns of power and influence that were at play in the group and I was asking a number of questions.  No one in the group wanted to speak: everyone seemed to be more or less uncomfortable. So I decided to examine this by asking another question or two. Then, one of the police officers said: ‘The trouble is our unfamiliarity with this whole situation: you see, we’re the ones who ask the questions.

Over the years I’ve often thought about this remark. I’ve thought about who gets to ask the questions, about the content of questions and about the statements behind questions. But I think that it has also helped me to appreciate some really good questions that happen to come my way. So, the other night I was watching the terrific film El secreto de sus ojos*  (The secret in their eyes) and I became fascinated by a question that the lead character, Benjamin Esposito, wanted to answer: Esposito was writing a book about a terrible crime that had been committed. A young married woman had been raped and murdered. The crime had left an indelible impression on all those concerned – and especially on the life of the murdered woman’s husband: formerly his life had been filled with his love for his wife. Now he had nothing. Esposito wanted to end his book by finding an answer to the question: How does one live a life full of nothing?

The film suggests at least three answers:

We can revenge ourselves on whoever (or whatever) it is that reduces our lives to nothing.

We can give ourselves up to a passion. It doesn’t matter what the passion is.

We can live through an underlying hope – a hope that one day we will achieve something we really desire but have not yet attained.

There are a number of other responses: denial is one; resignation is another.

I think it’s an important question to ask because it may well be that many people are, in fact, living lives full of nothing. I say this because some of the retired people I meet are desperately trying to give meaning to their existence – now that their lives are filled with far less than before. And more generally Esposito’s question relates to Soren Kierkegaard’s striking remark that ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation‘.

But the film El secreto de sus ojos (and the particular question it raises concerning how to cope with ‘a life full of nothing’) reaches out from any specific case and  highlights the terrible difficulties facing so many people in Argentina who experienced the horror and tragedy of ‘the disappeared’.**

*El secreto de sus ojos is an Argentine crime thriller film that was released in 2009.

** This was highlighted in  ‘Who am I?‘, a documentary by Sue Lloyd-Roberts in the BBC series: Our world which was broadcast on April 6 2013 and which examines the ongoing struggle in Argentina of those families trying to find the children who were stolen from their mothers in the 1970s.

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