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A Picture of Nothing

by David Graham 7 months ago in Short Story

A story about the mental turmoil of an Instagram picture and the search for understanding the meaning of nothing

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

I was in the front room lying on my sofa, in terms of what I was doing, nothing. I shouldn’t be doing nothing, I should be writing my university assignment, the problem was my assignment was on nothing.

You read that right, I’m studying philosophy you see, and have to write an entire essay on the meaning of nothing. Two thousand words… on nothing.

How were you even supposed to go about starting such an essay? It was madness, part of me wondered whether it was a trick, was I supposed to just hand in a blank piece of paper?

I had no clue, but that picture that I had just posted to Instagram, the guy in that picture that I was trying so hard to bring to life, the guy that looked like me and that everyone thought was me, but that I knew deep down was not me, he was smart enough to work it out, to do this essay.

It was so unfair that I couldn’t be that person. Especially considering how hard I was trying to be him. But it was true, I was not him. He was a lie, a lie created using clever software and words, a lie that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make a reality, which was why I was just lying on this sofa, doing nothing.

But then was I really doing nothing, I was lying on the sofa, that was doing something, right? And I was thinking I should be writing my assignment on nothing, that was doing something as well?

I was also constantly checking my phone to see how many likes my Instagram gym progress pic had got. Not only had Carly, the girl who I most definitely desired to be my girlfriend, not liked my post, but it also didn’t have as many likes yet as the one I had posted last week, which was worrying. Maybe I had regressed. In fact, maybe I should go to the gym, get back on track.

That, or delete the picture and try a different filter?


The new filter hadn’t worked, and so I had been to the gym and was now back home again lying on my sofa, doing nothing. How could I do anything else, the world hated me, the proof being that I hadn’t even made a hundred likes yet with my progress pic on Instagram. I just wanted to cry, really did.

At which point I realized just how much of a first-world problem I had. Christ, get yourself together, wanting to cry over not hitting a hundred likes.

And screw that anyway, you need to stop doing nothing and start doing your essay on nothing.

Except wait, wanting to cry was doing something wasn’t it, so again, I wasn’t really doing nothing was I? Hell, this was so confusing, but it was also totally accurate, feeling like you wanted to cry was doing something. It was feeling like you wanted to cry. Hell, even feeling like you were doing nothing was still doing something. It was feeling like you were doing nothing. Which made no sense and yet made perfect sense. In fact, I could not imagine any scenario in which it was possible to actually be doing nothing.

Did that make doing nothing in a literal sense impossible? Maybe it did?

Should I write that down as part of my essay, that doing nothing should mean doing nothing, and yet somehow it meant doing something, because ‘doing nothing’ was ‘doing something’. It was ‘doing nothing’, which made it something. Nothing.

That made sense didn’t it? Oddly it did, right? Even if a person found a way to do nothing, they’d still be doing something, they’d be doing nothing, which meant it wasn’t possible to do nothing because doing nothing was doing something, nothing.

Wow that hurt my head, I mean how confusing. But it was true, right? Doing nothing should mean doing nothing, but because it meant ‘doing nothing’, it meant doing something. Nothing. Which meant doing nothing in a literal sense was impossible. Right?

What was I even on about?

I didn’t know, but I sat up on the sofa. I had to get my head around whatever it was I was on about, I mean I’d never thought of this before, I’d always just taken doing nothing as doing nothing, and never for a second considered just what doing nothing actually meant.

If I was going to write this essay, I had to work it the hell out.


I had been thinking and thinking and thinking for so long that my mind felt like it was going to explode. But still, I had not started my essay.

This was impossible, I couldn’t think of any way to describe actual nothing, and the only way I could think to describe a person doing nothing was to say that they weren’t doing anything. But it was not possible to not do anything, you would always be doing something, even if that something was nothing.

So even if you did the impossible and found a way to actually be doing nothing, you’d still be doing something. Nothing. Which meant you couldn’t find a way to be doing nothing.

Surely that wasn’t right, surely there was a way to do nothing?

If there was, I couldn’t think of it.

Was that because I was stupid, or because there truly was not a way to do nothing? I tried and tried to work out the answer, but I couldn’t. Madness. How could I not get my head around this?

And why had Carly still not liked my picture yet, she had been online twice since I posted it? This was most frustrating.


The hours had flashed by, yet I still had got no further with even my search for the meaning of doing nothing, let alone the meaning of actual nothing. I decided that I needed a drink, a glass of hot cocoa so headed into the kitchen and made myself one, and as I held it in my hand, all I could think was if this glass was empty would it have nothing in it?

Google Dictionary, that would help. I opened the dictionary app on my phone and typed in define nothing.

Non-existence; no thing; not anything, was the answer that came up. And it made perfect sense, that was what nothing meant. Maybe I should just write that and have that description be my entire essay?

No, that would be no good. I had to make certain that I fully understood nothing. And I clearly still didn’t because I still couldn’t define whether if my glass was empty, there would be nothing in it or not.

The problem was the description had not helped me do that, I still kept seeing nothing as something, and if nothing was always something, then what was nothing? It should be nothing but by being nothing it was being something, nothing. So if there was nothing in this glass there was something in it, nothing.

And besides that there could never be nothing in it, it would always be filled with fresh air. Even if it was in outer space where there was no fresh air it would still not be empty, it would be filled with whatever it was that made space space. So it could never be empty, and if it could never be empty there could never be “nothing” in it because there would always be something in it, even if that something was nothing.

Argh, this was so frustrating. In fact, I was starting to hate my lecturer, giving me an essay on the subject of nothing.

Forget that, let’s just get this done. You can definitely do this, you can work this out, work out what nothing is and write an entire two-thousand-word essay on it.

All right, here we go. I nodded to myself; I was about to solve this problem. Work out what nothing was. All I had to do was focus on nothing, build an image of it in my head.

Argh no that’s not it, you can’t build an image of something that is not supposed to exist. This was so frustrating. Why was nothing refusing to be nothing? It should be nothing, but if it was nothing, then it was something. Nothing.

Infinity, that suddenly entered my head, I could imagine infinity, all I had to do was imagine a never-ending line, anyone could do that. A never-ending corridor as well, which was a recurring nightmare for many of the world’s population.

In fact, imagining infinity was easy, and the absolute proof of infinity was the night sky, look up at the blackness of space and you were seeing infinity. But where was the proof of nothing? Everywhere you looked, there was something.

I once again tried to imagine nothing, but I couldn’t, I kept seeing nothing, or at least my image of it, and the fact I could see it made it something. But what did that even mean? I couldn’t work it out, it was driving me mad.

Not as mad as my Instagram picture. I again looked at it, over a hundred likes now and still rising. But had Carly liked it yet?

No, she had not. But why not, she must have seen it by now? Why had she not liked it?


All I had been able to do was sit on the edge of the sofa, lamenting my misfortune. Why had Carly not liked my picture? What was wrong with it, with me? Was it my pointy nose? Nope, the filter hid that. Maybe it was because I looked a bit chubby. No, the filter hid that too.

Argh, what was it?

And on that thought, I again thought of nothing, the word I still could not understand.

Maybe it was a word that was simply impossible to imagine?

Wait, maybe that was it? Maybe by trying to imagine it, I was failing by default to understand it. Maybe the way to understand nothing was to just see it as nothing. An unimaginable word. You can’t imagine it because it doesn’t exist? Nothing does not exist because it is nothing? And maybe the way I was trying to think about nothing — not giving it context — was wrong. Maybe nothing on its own without context did not exist, but nothing with context did? That would explain how my glass would have nothing in it if it was empty — because I was providing context by saying that there was no hot cocoa in it.

Yes, that made sense. Perfect sense. To reaffirm that sense, I tried to think of all the times that I’d said that there was nothing there. Did you see that, a person might say. No, there’s nothing there, another might say in response.

There was always something there, just not the thing the person was alluding to, so there was nothing of that something there. Did that explain nothing?

Maybe it did? I thought of the time a few months back when I had visited that haunted house, when we were inside my friend had said to me, did you see that. No, I had said back to him, there’s nothing there.

But the “nothing” had alluded to the supposed ghost not being there, there was still something there, there was much there, the walls, the cabinets, the darkness, the air and all the molecules that made it up, then there was my friend and me, we were also there. It was just the ghost was not there which was why I had said there was nothing there.

Was that how nothing worked? With context? To explain and understand nothing did you need context? There was nothing of this element in this location? Nothing did not seem to function in any other way, which seemed like madness. Nothing in a literal sense had to exist… right? And you had to be able to properly explain it? Right?

But then, maybe it didn’t, and you couldn’t?

At least not in the way I had originally thought, maybe it was supposed to just mean there was nothing of this element at this location at this moment in time, and nothing in the way I had been trying to imagine it, as “nothing”, did not exist. Maybe it truly couldn’t exist in the literal sense and that was the point, it couldn’t exist because it was nothing? And so you couldn’t explain it, do an essay on it, or anything because there wasn’t anything to write about because it didn’t exist?

I took a sip on my now well and truly cold “hot” cocoa. Maybe nothing in the literal sense truly did not exist, maybe it was impossible.

In fact, I wondered if that’s why we existed, simply because “nothing” in the literal sense was impossible. Oddly, it made sense, if the only thing in the universe that was impossible, was for there to be nothing, then the reason for our existence, our universe’s existence, of the existence of everything, was simply because nothing was impossible but nothing, and because nothing was impossible but nothing there always had to be something, and because there always had to be something, there would at some point be every sort of something, except nothing, which is not a something.

Could that be true? Did life, this universe, did everything truly only exist due to the rather paradoxical irony that “nothing” in a literal sense did not exist?

Infinity, I thought of that again, if there was something everywhere because infinity existed then nothing in the literal sense could not exist because where could it be? If there was something everywhere there could be nothing nowhere?

A beginning and an end implied nothing either side, but there was no beginning or end. Look up at the night sky, stare into infinity, and see the proof that “nothing” was impossible, and that nothing was nowhere because infinity was everywhere. And in fact, if there was infinity, there could not be nothing because infinite existence did not allow for nothing, just as nothing did not allow for infinite existence. The two could not exist together.

So we existed only because nothing did not exist, and because of the fact everything did exist but nothing, but if that was so, how was it so easy to feel like you were nothing?

In fact, it was then that I finally realized, I could imagine nothing, but only as a feeling, because as I looked at my Instagram follower list, I discovered the reason why Carly hadn’t liked my picture yet, she had unfollowed me. And at that moment… I felt like nothing.


I opened a word document and began my essay, the title: How My Obsession with Social Media Likes Created Nothing from Something.


To see more of my short stories check out this link:

Short stories by David Graham


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About the author

David Graham

Due to injury I write using voice dictation software! Lover of psychology, science'y things, movies, fiction and self-improvement. From the north-east of England!


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