Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok


The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same glass differently.

Let’s think of the glass as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now look at the goblet again and ask not if it is half-empty or half-full in terms of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question.

What will you do with it? What will you do with whatever is inside the glass?

Here is an example of how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64 in 1945, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be further enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death-bed that he had hoped to leave the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” still occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still full.

He could have said that he wanted to leave an empty glass rather than an empty trunk. The point is that he wanted to expend everything he had inside himself on the job of life. Spill it all out. Use it all up.

Bartok  believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself; his responsibility to his fellow-man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give; to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him and those that he had developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not only because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They create or recreate because they cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different from the attitude of those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heroes, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate their model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It rejects the withdrawn self-protection that insures that we will miss-out on what we really want; the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced,  the life that might have been, “if only…”.

Bartok had no choice in his failure to “leave with an empty trunk.” He composed one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia that killed him. It wasn’t for lack of trying that his “trunk” was still full of creative ideas.

The rest of us don’t have the same excuse if we leave life with some part of the best of ourselves held in abeyance — at least not yet. Why? Because we still have time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our trunk with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, that goal was to empty it of the things that were internal. Many are torn between the two. A life of consumption or a life of creation. Clearly there is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have had the time to have done more, not consumed more.

I can think of worse philosophies of living.

This post is a reworking of one I published about four years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

4 thoughts on “Emptying the Glass of Life: Bela Bartok

  1. Interesting concept. I’ve never looked at life this way, as an emptying of our glass or trunk. But I’ve lived with the belief that we’re here to share our special gifts and talents with others. Each of us has so much to share, to give.

    I thank you for sharing your insights of years of experience in psychotherapy.


    • Thanks, Rosaliene. As I think about Bartok and others like him, I see them as offering themselves as possible models of how to live. To me at least, it is a refreshing change from much of the voracious acquisitiveness that many people believe to be the way to happiness; a method that rarely succeeds.


  2. Engineers would point out that the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty but twice as big as it needs to be.


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