A Word for the Unhealthy Voices in Our Heads

L’appel du vide(la-pell-doo-veed) • noun

Definition: The call of the void

Origin: French

A Bizarre Fear of Heights

I do not know if most people have this sensation, but I have had it for as long as I can remember. Whenever I am in a high place like the top of a mountain, the observation deck of a skyscraper, or the sides of a bridge, I am never nervous about slipping and falling to my death. I am not worried about having an irrevocable, calamitous accident. Instead, I am nervous about going insane for a split second and intentionally jumping off the ledge. When I look over a high point, a chill goes down my spine when I realize how far up I am, and then a small voice in my head wonders what jumping would feel like. There is no urge to jump, but just a subtle curiosity. In response, I always back away so that my brain cannot get filled with these deadly curiosities. 

For most of my life, I felt that I might be mildly insane because of this sensation. I also had no idea what to call it. I could describe it, but I did not know of a precise name for this unwanted feeling. However, about five years ago, I shared my “fear of heights” with a friend and he casually said, “Oh, that’s l’appel du vide: the call of the void.” Having a precise name for this bizarre inner voice turned a frightening situation into an empowering realization of self, and I believe that l’appel du vide is especially pertinent today.

The Voices in Our Heads

Standing in high places and briefly imagining yourself falling into the abyss might be most commonly associated with l’appel du vide, but the call of the void actually has nothing to do with heights. It has everything to do with the frightening realization that sometimes the voice in your head is the last thing you should listen to.

The notion that sometimes your own thoughts might be the most dangerous to your well-being is actually something that we confront and disregard on a daily basis. We all do things every day that we know are not healthy or good for us, but we just casually shrug and dismiss them because we know their impact will not be calamitous. We all have this voice. Cartoons often depict it as having an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, and the protagonist must decide which voice they plan on listening to. The discussion in our head can be light and comical when the immediate ramifications are fairly innocuous, but all of this changes when these voices continue to talk when you find yourself in a precarious position such as the edge of a cliff. What was a comical joke depicted by cartoons now becomes frightening when we can easily imagine the negative impact of acting on these thoughts.

L’appel du vide presents a profound question because now we must ask ourselves who or what we can trust when we realize that in certain instances we cannot trust ourselves. When you’re standing at the precipice, it is easy to recognize that you trust your desire to live more than the chaos within your own mind. Your core, innate philosophy is one that chooses life over death, and it is easy to grasp this philosophy as you stare into the void. Yet when the void is less apparent, we still must be able to grasp onto a life-affirming philosophy so that we can disregard some of the voices in our heads. 

Consciousness vs. Conscience 

A long time ago, I attended a meditation retreat and one of the main things I remember was the simple request to ignore any sensation to move as we meditated. As I sat still, my body would always seem to find an area on my nose, leg, or back that needed to be itched. The voice in my head would say, “Just scratch it real quick, and go back to meditating,” and prior to this retreat, I would have done exactly that without a second thought. However, for the duration of this weekend, I decided to fight that inner voice and see what would happen. Would the itch go away? Would the voice grow quiet? For me, the itch always went away.

One afternoon, a participant asked the guru about the importance of one’s conscience to cultivating goodness in the world, and to my surprise, he responded by saying that he does not believe in conscience, but instead in consciousness. What makes us good or do good is not a voice in our heads that is committed to sending us down the right path, but instead our consciousness or awareness. I had never heard anyone say this before, and I found it empowering because the responsibility of my goodness no longer depended on my conscience or the random ideas that flowed through my head. You cannot do good solely based upon what comes and goes in your mind, and if I had listened to those voices, I would have become horrible at any meditation practice.

As I examine the tension between consciousness and conscience, I also think about the profound difference between Cartesian “I think therefore I am” philosophy, and Ubuntu’s “I am because we are” philosophy. The former is existence based on one’s thoughts and the latter is about your connection to others and the world. When l’appel du vide invades one’s mind as they look over the guard railing on a bridge, what convinces them to not leap into the void are the connections they have with others and the world. Their existence is silencing their essence, and in doing so, they get to continue living. One’s yearning for life precedes one’s capacity to articulate it but having the words or a phrase to describe it provides the clarity to better understand one’s existence.

In the situations where we should not trust ourselves, our core innate philosophy should be one that elevates and sustains existence, both our own and the world around us. 

L’appel du vide & COVID-19

As America continues to struggle with COVID-19, it seems as though countless Americans are gleefully jumping into the deadly void of a global pandemic and calling it freedom. They exercise their freedom by listening to the voice in their heads who say it is okay to not wear a mask, despite the rest of the world emploring them to be aware and conscious of a deadly virus and to act responsibly. Their freedom derives from the voices in their heads, and not from a desire to exist in the world. 

America is not the only nation where far too many of its residents listen to l’appel du vide and gleefully plunge into the abyss. On Saturday, nearly 10,000 people protested COVID-19 restrictions in Berlin, Germany. As infection rates increase in the nation, they held up signs proclaiming that “the end of the pandemic” has arrived and asked people to “show me your smile” instead of wearing a mask. Unsurprisingly, the march in Berlin consisted of political right-wingers, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theorists. They called the march their “Day of Freedom” and claimed that their freedom was being “stolen” from them. Their ideas of freedom that swirl nonsensically in their heads surpass their desire to exist.

As we all adapt and figure out how to stay safe in this troubling environment, it is important that we combat the voices in our heads that encourage us to be dangerously cavalier, and instead listen to the voices that remain conscious, aware, and attuned to our surroundings. L’appel du vide can be a new phrase that helps you articulate to your friends, loved ones, or colleagues why they shouldn’t always listen to their own ideas because it might secretly be leading them to an undesirable void.

Please share your thoughts with us via emailInstagramFacebook, or Twitter using #TheWord, and support us on Patreon. We will be hosting a Live Q&A session on our Instagram today at 5PM ET so that we can answer your questions about l'appel du vide. See you there.

SCL Events

A huge thank you to everyone who attended our Diaspora People's Month Artist Talk Series! This has been an incredible journey and we would like to recognize our partner organization, SAMASAMA, for their incredible work and all the artists who presented this month. If you weren't able to donate during the Eventbrite registration, you are still able to do so by Venmoing @barrettpitner which will be added to our shared donation bucket. Your support will allow us to keep creating spaces and free cultural offerings like these in the future, and 10% will also be donated to Movement for Black Lives. You can also support all of the artists we showcased this month by going to our website and checking out the art pieces that are available for purchase. We have some really exciting events on the horizon, so please stay tuned because we can't wait to share them with you!