May 29, 1953.
Breathless and struggling for balance, the mountaineer plunges his pickaxe into the jagged ice. 21 feet. Every muscle screaming for relief, every breath more painful than the last—he relentlessly pushes himself onward. 16 feet. Turning back is unthinkable. Continuing is impossible. 10 feet. The atmosphere has dulled his senses. The wind has eroded his strength. 6 feet. To his oxygen-deprived mind, his movement is slower. Time itself seems protracted. 2 feet. By sheer willpower he thrusts his exhausted body onto the summit. At last, he stands. Gazing at the majestic Himalayas, he is flooded with joy and victory. The battle against nature's purest and most savage of forces has been won. The man is Edmund Hillary. The mountain, Everest.
A monumental day. A turning point in human history. For the first time since man has roamed the earth, he has reached its highest peak, the top of the world. In the 101 years since her discovery, Everest thwarted the noble attempts of fifteen climbing expeditions to summit her. Some climbers were forced to retreat in bitter failure; twenty-four others, not as fortunate, never returned from earth's tallest death trap. Mount Everest, nature's most daunting and mocking obstacle, has finally been conquered. Yet, reflecting upon the incident, Edmund Hillary realized something: "When George exuberantly gave the thumbs up signal of success they rushed towards us and soon we were embracing them all.... It was a touching and unforgettable moment; and yet somehow a sad one too" (Edmund Hillary, Nothing Venture, Nothing Win).
Ten years later, concerning his own ascent of Everest, the acclaimed mountaineer Thomas Hornbein contemplates: "There was loneliness, too, as the sun set, but only rarely now did doubts return. Then I felt sinkingly as if my whole life lay behind me. Once on the mountain I knew (or trusted) that this would give way to total absorption with the task at hand. But at times I wondered if I had not come a long way only to find out that what I really sought was something I had left behind" (Thomas Hornbein, Everest: The West Ridge). Conquering the world's highest peak, the apex of all human accomplishment—yet perhaps the answers lie in something, somewhere, left behind.
It is the reason the mountaineer lives and breathes. Climbing to the summit of Everest is his driving force, his purpose for human existence. Yet upon reaching the highest point on earth, though surely joy is there, underneath it all is a tinge of sadness, the unsettling discovery that perhaps this wasn't the answer after all. It is a profound realization for the climber on the top of the world, yet one that shares a common thread with all humanity. In every facet of human society, man is driven to accomplish a purpose, a goal that brings meaning to his life. Yet when he accomplishes even the seemingly impossible, deep within there remains a trace of discontent and an echo of emptiness.
Howard Hughes was one of the richest men in history, making more than a billion dollars in his lifetime. He was dubbed one of the ten most successful businessmen in American history. A typical rich playboy, he frolicked throughout his youth pursuing after models, hosting large parties, and attempting daring feats, such as flying around the world in record time. His movie making business brought him into contact with every star in film. He had accomplished what most could only dream of and had more money than he could spend in his lifetime.
Yet as he grew older, amidst his growing fortune, he underwent a peculiar transformation. It seemed that the more money he made, the more unhappy he became. Like many other rich tycoons, the wealth he possessed created an increasing barrier between himself and others. He became suspicious and distant, a recluse who eventually devoted himself to avoiding germs and people. In the last years of his life, few people knew whether he was dead or alive. The final years of decreasing health brought endless battles as ravenous acquaintances fought for a share in this dying man's will. Though one of the richest men in the world, in the end he died in misery and virtual insanity. "You don't seem to realize that a poor person who is unhappy is in a better position than a rich person who is unhappy. Because the poor person has hope. He thinks money would help" (Jean Kerr). (Adapted in part from Money Madness by Herb Goldberg and Robert T. Lewis)
Kurt Cobain kicked off a grunge-rock revolution, inspiring youth from Seattle to London with his free-spirited music. Recording his first song at fifteen and becoming a cultural icon ten years later, Cobain reached enormous success. He attained all that a young aspiring artist could have possibly dreamed of. He was on top of the cultural world. And this was only the beginning of his artistic genius. Yet in spite of his growing success and fame, he could never escape a deep sense of discontent—a discontent that led to a harrowing life-style of tumultuous relationships and heroin addiction, which created painful mood swings of escape and dejection. Surely the pressures of his band's astronomical rise in the charts and the relentless stream of fan attention contributed to Cobain's life on the edge. Yet it was more than mere pressure. A biographer considers: "It must have been galling to have achieved his ambition and realize it still wasn't enough. He could be ecstatic, and experienced the brief illusion of happiness. What Cobain never knew was contentment" (Christopher Sandford, Kurt Cobain). He had achieved all that he had desired, yet it still was not enough. Eventually, "neither the drugs' deadly solace nor the wife and baby he adored were enough to bind him to life" (Poppy Brite, People Weekly, Sept. 1, 1997). On April 5, 1994, Kurt Cobain tragically committed suicide.
The theory of probabilities. The invention of the first calculating machine. The binomial theorem. These all are attributed to one remarkable scientist: Blaise Pascal. A genius and a Renaissance man, Pascal was as well versed in hydrostatics as in French prose. One of the most respected scientists of his time, his accomplishment and intellect were unparalleled by his contemporaries. However, the same mind that produced these pivotal breakthroughs in science was balanced by its keen insight into the human condition. In fact, many fail to acknowledge him for what he considered to be his greatest discovery. Deep in the throes of his research into the nature of the vacuum, he came across an even more consequential vacuum—the vacuum within man. As he says in Pensées, "All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever means they employ, they all tend to this end.... This is the motive of every action of every man.... And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look." Despite Pascal's success in the pursuit of knowledge, even he was brought to reckon with the fact that his brilliant intellect, his refined thoughts, and his great scientific research could not fill the emptiness within.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Amidst the extravagance and reckless spirit of the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald had it all. He was a young, aspiring literary writer, with a wife and child he showered with adoration. His name rose to glory at the astonishing young age of twenty-three with the widespread popularity of his first novel, This Side of Paradise. This instant success propelled him into a luxurious life-style that included frequent trips to Europe, a house on Long Island, and film assignments in Hollywood. Of this period he later recalled riding up Fifth Avenue in a cab suddenly bursting into tears, realizing he "would never be so happy again." Yet juxtaposed with his wealth and fame was a mournful undertone that haunted him until his death. What he later called his "wise and tragic sense of life" pervaded the themes of his fiction, in which he mocked the American success myth and approached wealth with callous indifference, most notably in his American classic, The Great Gatsby. "I feel that it is your duty to accept the sadness, the tragedy of the world we live in," he wrote in 1936 to his fourteen-year old daughter, "...by this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare's to Abraham Lincoln's, and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat." F. Scott Fitzgerald. A product of the roaring twenties. A timeless cry.
Eternity in Man's Heart
After attaining the achievements most only dream of, all these people have come to the same stark realization: there still remains a feeling of emptiness and sadness. This emptiness leaves some in perpetual unhappiness, pushes others to insanity, and drives still others to suicide. Though faint and small it may seem, this voice of discontent is something which man throughout history has failed to quiet.
The ancient king Solomon embodied everything man has sought to attain through the centuries. He had unequaled wisdom, supreme position, unsurpassed wealth, and hundreds of wives and concubines. Yet he too could not escape the enduring sense of emptiness within. Only after he had exhausted every human enjoyment imaginable did he finally realize man's endless plight. After countless attempts to satisfy himself, he found that there is truly nothing under the sun that satisfies, and he cried, "Vanity of vanities. All is vanity" (Ecclesiastes 1:2, ASV).
Solomon not only experienced the underlying emptiness common to all mankind, but under divine inspiration he came upon a shattering revelation regarding its source. This he states in elegant simplicity in the book of Ecclesiastes: God "has planted eternity in men's hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11, Amplified Bible). The Amplified Bible defines eternity as "a divinely implanted sense of a purpose working through the ages which nothing under the sun but God alone can satisfy."
Eternity. A divinely implanted sense of purpose. Something infinite in measure, whose void is endless. The same void that Edmund Hillary could not satisfy, though it took 8,000 meters into the earth's atmosphere for him to discover. The same sense of purpose that Hughes could never fill with his billions, nor Cobain with all his success and fame. The same eternity that Pascal so notably discovered within himself, and that Fitzgerald so tragically encountered in his anguished life.
And this is also the same void, the same eternity, that stirs deep within each one of us. It is the unyielding dissatisfaction with life, the cry that there must be something more. Many times this sense is faint and easily dismissed in the noise of the day. At other times it is too blatant to ignore. Yet regardless of its intensity, it always intimates to us that indeed there is something missing-a missing piece that man has searched for in his achievements, his accomplishments, his surroundings, and even within himself, yet always in vain. For what is this eternal object?
The Missing Piece
Pascal found the answer. In his studies, he named the empty void within man a "God-shaped vacuum." And his solution: "This emptiness which he [man] in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings...these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite, immutable Object, that is, by God Himself" (Blaise Pascal, Pensées). Pascal realized that the missing piece—the unique infinite object—is actually neither a material possession nor an ultimate attainment, but rather a Person. The "God-shaped vacuum," the "eternity in man's heart," was specifically created in man to be filled with one unique object: God Himself.
If there was an inward response in you as you were reading these articles and you want to fill the sense of emptiness within you with God Himself, please open your heart to pray the following prayer in a genuine and sincere way:
Lord Jesus, I need You. Lord, I have tried so many things and nothing truly satisfies me. Come into me and fill my deepest part right now. Save me from my sins and from my emptiness. Lord, I receive You into me. Lord Jesus, I love You. Thank You for saving me.