I recently learned about a psychological phenomenon known as “the call of the void,” or, in its original French, “l’appel du vide.” I won’t go into detail about it here because a) I’m not an expert and b) I can’t provide much of a trigger warning in an Instagram post. Suffice it to say, if you’ve ever driven down the highway or stood at the edge of a cliff or building, and dwelled uncomfortably long on the thought that you could, in the next split second, swerve into oncoming traffic or take a step forward, you’ve heard the call. (No, it’s not just a suicidal impulse. Yes, it’s a common experience with a scientific basis. Psychologists call it the “high place phenomenon,” as in the name of one study about it: “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.”)
I’ve known and heard the call of the void (though I didn’t know it had a name) since I was a kid. For much of my adolescence, it made me quietly anxious about learning to drive. But how do you explain such a thing to the adults around you? And how do you get away with not driving? So I steeled myself, got behind the wheel, and plunged headfirst into whatever it was that I might have to think and feel. Driving has since become one of my favorite activities, during which I think about almost everything and anything besides proximity to nothingness.
Up until this past weekend, I’d been similarly reluctant to learn how to shoot a gun. And that is a much easier thing to get away with never trying. I think I knew that I’d never seek out the opportunity on my own. That I needed somebody else—a lifelong gun enthusiast and recreational hunter, say—to very casually, but very deliberately, force me into that situation. I also knew that if this happened, the urge to peer into the void would immediately overwhelm any instinct to draw back from its edge. So when Greg handed me his 12-gauge shotgun at the end of a fruitless turkey hunt this past weekend, I knew that I would take it in hand, think and feel whatever thoughts and feelings came to mind, and ultimately use the thing the way it was meant to be used.
So many things I’d only ever heard or suspected about shooting now make real, vivid sense to me. And the truth is, the call of the void, unsettling though it may be, is the most superficial and least interesting of those things. It is an ominous feeling, to hold death in your hands. You ought never to forget that feeling, lest you lose your corresponding sense of gravity and respect. Those who know guns best will tell you that. But as with driving, it’s every place else that you can visit while shooting, besides somewhere close to nothing at all, that makes the experience meaningful and worthwhile. It’s the space in between the void and the present moment—one which you were so sure was a precarious, knife-edge—that you discover actually has depth and dimension.
I fired all of ten shells. Yes, it does seem like time slows down. Yes, it does feel like everything around you recedes and goes quiet. Yes, you can feel your own pulse. I’m obviously not as familiar with these sensations and impressions as an experienced shooter. But they’re still unmistakable. After all, you are just focusing really hard on something.
I think the most interesting part of shooting that I actually gained an understanding of (as opposed to merely recognizing or confirming), was the way it clears your head. Many recreational shooters say that they do it to relieve stress—counterintuitive, perhaps, if you’re still stuck on the lethality. But if you can actually bring yourself to pull the trigger, you feel pieces of whatever you’d been holding onto go up in flames along with the gunpowder, get blown out of the end of the muzzle along with the round, get shredded along with the beer can you were aiming at. In the fraction of a second (which seems like an eon) after you feel the resistance behind your trigger finger’s middle knuckle give way, a literal explosion happens two inches away from your face. The noise is enveloping, but not “loud” per se (you don’t worry about plugging your own ears, the people around you do). You blink reflexively. The recoil comes in phases: you register impact—the actual movement of your body—before feeling the ache in your shoulder left behind from the butt end of the rifle slamming into it. The whole thing is like being slapped across the face or shaken out of a nightmare: you end up somewhere totally different. You’re dazed. You feel emptier, lighter, as if some great pressure had found a sudden release point. You realize that that is in fact what happened.
Hope Township, MI