complex simplicity

I stopped at nothing to write this column. You see, there are times a writer might find himself short on ideas. Not this time, of course, but it could theoretically happen. How then, would that writer fulfill his duties? Well, purely as a hypothetical situation, an illuminating exercise, let us explore. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, one might say. Okay… here goes nothing.

Our imaginary writer sits motionless for a long time. The Dutch have a word for the art of doing nothing: niksen. But is he really doing nothing? Nothing doing. He is asking himself the question, “Is there nothing worth writing about?” The answer, quite obviously, is yes.

He looks at his files of column ideas. Nothing seems appropriate. Luckily, one of the files is labeled “Write about Nothing.” In the file, of course, is a whole lot of nothing.

What is nothing? Philosophers have grappled with that question for thousands of years. Socrates believed the beginning of wisdom was knowing that you knew nothing. In the 20th century, a certain television sitcom sergeant of the Nazi persuasion achieved this goal, repeatedly declaring “I know nothing!” to his peers. But Sgt. Schultz isn’t the only one capable of deep thinking. Let’s get to know nothing too, shall we?

Nothing as a concept is necessary; without it, we wouldn’t have mathematics. To the person who invented nothing, I say, on behalf of myself and hundreds of generations of math students, thanks for nothing.

A different well-known television sitcom (actually a show within that show) was once famously described as being about nothing. The description became associated with the show itself (Seinfeld) as people happily realized that nothing is very good. We knew this much already, of course—it’s evident in the collected wisdom of our language. Nothing is sacred.

When people are at their lowest ebb, there is nothing to live for, because nothing makes sense. Remember the inspiring commitment to work through one’s troubles: “Nothing is worth this.” When things are stressful, hopeless, or bleak, nothing helps. Nothing can surprise you. Nothing makes you happy.

Generally speaking, nothing stays the same, but there are times that we face problems head on, and despite our best efforts, nothing changes. At those moments, it’s important to fear nothing; after all, there’s nothing to fear.

When people are concerned about someone else’s well-being, they ask, “What’s wrong?” or “What’s bothering you?” The answer, much of the time, is confessed readily: “It’s nothing.” This is nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing is impossible. Really—nothing’s that bad.

And nothing is that complicated. Because nothing is more enjoyable than laughter. Nothing is more intimate than a whisper. Nothing relaxes you like soft music near a warm fire with a glass of wine. This is nothing personal.

Think for a moment, about your best relationship. Nothing is better than that, wouldn’t you agree? Even in heated moments—full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—the truth comes out about the sympathetic, symbiotic relationship that was always meant to be: “You’re good for nothing!” and “Nothing is good enough for you!” and finally, the point hammered home: “Nothing satisfies you!’ Yes it does.

Popular music has much to say about nothing. There are a lot of songs about love, and even more about nothing, especially those that find their way to the top of the charts. Sometimes nothing can stop an ill-fated romance, as heard in the uplifting song “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by Starship; the song’s two vocalists seem to realize that nothing is happening to them, and it’s life-changing.

In “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the signer’s current amour (who must really be something) is ranked about the same as nothing. “Nothing Can Come Between Us” features Sade recognizing the virtues of her current lover, while making him fully aware of his “second choice” status. And who could forget the joyful, feminist affirmations of Whitney Houston as she sing-shouts, “I have nothing if I don’t have you.” And that’s just from one decade!

We may not like to admit it, but nothing is desirable to everyone. Indeed, what a boring world it would be if that weren’t true.

There’s nothing on TV, meaning nothing serious on the news, and for entertainment, some old movies—Deep impact, Armageddon, The Core—nothing Earth-shattering. On the radio, NJ 101.5 is talking loud and saying nothing. These examples, and many others, remind us that we have nothing in common. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to say, “We understand nothing.” But you ain’t seen nothing yet.

These days, it seems like nothing is good for you. According to some studies, niksen reduces stress levels and boosts happiness. Nothing can be everything to everyone, but as a first step, we should each resolve to make nothing happen in our own lives.

Recording all these things to paper, our imaginary writer pauses, looks over his work, and sighs. The die has been cast. Nothing is written.

He can escape nothing, but right now nothing is in his head. He has made something from nothing, but nothing guarantees success. After all, nothing’s perfect. Remembering niksen, he realizes that nothing can be done. He decides to send a copy to his mother. This is nothing to write home about.

She thanks him for the gesture, and he responds, “Think nothing of it.” Even his harshest critics usually offer a mix of positive and negative criticism; this time, they will say they like nothing in the entire column. To which he will modestly reply: Aw, shucks. It was nothing.

Peter Dabbene’s website is His new book Complex Simplicity collects the first 101 editions of this column, along with essays and material published elsewhere. It is now available at or for $25 (print) or $4.99 (ebook).