The TV classic “Seinfeld” (1990-98) supposedly was a show about nothing. But nothing could be further from the truth. Which links “Seinfeld” to Pope Benedict’s resignation and Presidents’ Day, which seem to be something but are really about nothing. And thus something.
Take your average TV show. It’s about something. Cops and criminals, threats to national security and screwball families come to mind. But most shows offer formula scripts loaded with gratuitous violence, sex and jokes on a fifth-grade-level. (My sense of humor functions at least two grades higher.) So they’re really about nothing.
“Seinfeld,” a show about nothing, definitely was about something. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer confronted the small realities of life. This struck a chord throughout the country because few of us experience daily shootouts and explosions or run into an unending stream of incredible sex partners. In our mundane lives, small events come up big—a kind word or a cutting one, an invitation to lunch or a freeze-out, a fresh chocolate-chip cookie or a stale one slipped into the takeout bag while we weren’t looking. These can trigger a variety of emotions, which color our sense of reality and stability.
Pope Benedict’s resignation was rather uncommon. Celestine V stepped down in 1294, Gregory XII in 1415. But it’s really about nothing, because that’s the gist of the question Benedict has raised. What do we do when we can’t—or shouldn’t—continue working? I think of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” Hamlet asks whether he should live, not how. Benedict—no suicide for Catholics, of course—turns that around.
Benedict, soon to be “hidden to the world” in a convent inside Vatican City, likely will read if he can. Possibly write if allowed—and his health and mental acuity permit. Doubtless he will occupy most of time doing “nothing”— occasionally chatting with friends but mostly praying and spending hours in silent contemplation. Just being.
Europeans tend to be more adept at doing “nothing” than Americans in spite of the crowds at Starbucks. We define ourselves by our work. That’s why I advise anyone contemplating retirement to retire to something rather than from something. But it’s also important to welcome time spent doing “nothing”—taking a walk, sitting in the sun, reading (which is also very much something) and learning to be with ourselves. “Nothing” gives us lots to think about.
Which brings me to Presidents’ Day. Washington and Lincoln demand study and contemplation. But Americans have turned their memories into yet another three-day weekend replete with blowout sales, closed government offices and empty classrooms. Like the ancient Romans, we demand bread and circuses. So Martin Luther King Day offers a heavy schedule for the National Basketball Association. Memorial Day and Labor Day bookend summer barbecue season anchored by July Fourth. Thanksgiving rolls into Black Friday and the Christmas retail season. With consummate ease, we turn something into nothing.
“Seinfeld,” Pope Benedict and Presidents’ Day. Three peas in a pod. Or, from another point of view, the elements required to write a post about nothing. Which adds up to, I maintain, a whole lot of something.
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