hell is empty

“And later when we got into the car, he took a turn down a street that I was pretty sure was a dead end. “Where are we going?” I asked. “I don’t know” he said “just driving”. “But this road doesn’t go anywhere” I told him. “That doesn’t matter.” “What does?” I asked, after a little while. “Just that we’re on it, dude.” He said.”

So. I saw this 1987 movie called Less Than Zero on tv. The movie is dated, but the story is timeless and I am not sure I have ever seen a movie so aptly named.

Less than Zero.

It’s about the boundaries, or boundlessness, of friendship.

It’s about lostness.

It’s about depths of despair.

It’s about what happens when someone’s life goes lower than zero and the helplessness in that space.

It would be really easy to watch this movie and go “aw, it’s just about spoiled rich kids.”

Don’t be silly. It’s about a kid’s downward spiral of loneliness and despair. It’s about the lostness you can find in your late tweens and early 20’s in the space between youth and adulthood.

It’s about the space between a good decision and bad decision.

It’s about how one bad decision at that age seems to gain momentum faster than at any other time in one’s life.

And it would be silly to ignore the lesson. Kids have it tough enough and if we adults ignore reminders of the toughness then, well, we are not only being silly we are being stupid.despair and alone

Less than Zero is a snapshot in a really tricky time in life. The transition from kid (or teen) to young adult.

The fragility of that time. I would imagine it is also a very tricky time for parents. The choice between teaching them to stand alone or stepping up and ‘being there’ to support. There is a heart wrenching scene about a half hour left in the movie where he begs his father for help. The words he says out loud sharing the sheer helplessness is painful.

Well. I often talk to kids in high school about resiliency and character. But I also talk about ‘slippery slopes.” And despair is another one of those slippery slopes.

Maybe the Robert Downey character was richer and more lonely and more psychotic than most of us, but I suspect not. I suspect that he simply lacked one thing.


And because he lacked Hope he couldn’t just seem to find a way from ‘less than zero.’

I’m no psychologist, but I’ll bet that Julian (the Downey character) was less an addict and more a man (or young man) who had simply given up because it seemed hopeless. I would imagine most of us can certainly relate to that feeling (maybe not to that extent but have slipped close to the line on occasion).

We, each of us, see people like Julian all the time. He could be your friend. Your brother. Your coworker. Your son. Your daughter. We sometimes see the warning signs and we ignore them. Or we dismiss it as “teen angst,” or “he’s just having fun” or even worse “he’s not strong enough, he just needs to be tougher.”

Even those of us who have issues in our own lives sometimes see the Julians of the world and think, “not my problem.” (I know I have been plenty guilty of that myself).  I guess the shame in it all is most of the times we only see the signs and don’t know the entire story. We don’t know when they have hit the ‘less than zero’ despair. And we do nothing. And therein lays the danger of despair.

I do know that I have made this mistake myself.

At far too young an age. I had a good friend who went less than zero. And never came back from there. I was maybe 24. She was 23. And I was caught up in my own life and my ‘stuff’ and just didn’t see it.

Yeah. I know it wasn’t my fault.

But when talking with her mother afterward in a painful discussion I did know that I could have done something. Maybe I couldn’t have gotten her out of less than zero and maybe I could have, but we will never know because I never showed up to see. I think when that happens at that time in your life you don’t beat yourself up too much, but you do kind of stiffen up a bit and pay attention a little more and maybe make sure you “show up.” To do something.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke

So the next time you come across someone like Julian resist the temptation to look down upon him or her. Because while you may see that person as immature, a weirdo or possibly just ‘weak’, I can tell you for a fact that all of us have felt that despair at some time or another. In fact this person may actually be an aspect of yourself you just don’t want to see.

Ok. Several thoughts to end on. I am not sure where I heard this and I have heard it in a variety of ways but let’s stick with this version:

abyss of despair

“In the darkest depths of despair remember it’s when night is the darkest that the stars are at their brightest.

And it’s those stars that will lead you home. And maybe you can get more than you ever imagined when you get there because of the journey.”

And then from literature:

“There is neither happiness nor unhappiness in this world; there is only the comparison of one state with another. Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live…..the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words: Wait and Hope.”

Alexandre Dumas (Count of Monte Cristo)

And, lastly, maybe the best thing I have ever read about despair came from The Elegance of the Hedgehog:

“Maybe that is what life is all about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if strains of music within the odd moment of beauty create a sport of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.”

All that said. Back to “Less than Zero.”

I am pretty sure I have never visited that place called “less than zero.”

Yeah. I am pretty sure at some point I may have glimpsed the door leading to ‘zero’, particularly in my teen years, but never walked through it. And I am pretty sure we all know kids who have one foot on that slippery slope of despair or have glimpsed the slope on occasion.

Our children deserve our attention all the time, but certainly when the slippery slope beckons as it seems to have a tendency to do in the teen years. Make sure you have a hand outstretched for these kids are our future.

And make sure that their future does not reside in a place called less than zero.


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Written by Bruce