Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
August 2007 - Volume 07, No. 5
The Empty Spaces
Just as I was publishing my July Newsletter,
I learned that my great website team, Dale and Dean, had suddenly lost
their wife and mother, Mary Jo, to a heart attack. It is to them that
I dedicate this edition of my Newsletter.
We all have experience of those in-between
spaces in nature - that can feel so special. There’s the beach or
shoreline - that place where the land meets the water. There’s
dusk or dawn, between the day and the night. For two people, with that
special space of love between them, to walk the beach at dusk - is triply
There’s that place of interface between the water
and the air, which it is the true sailor’s art to navigate (or perish).
There’s the space between the years - which we celebrate as New
Year’s Eve - as other cultures celebrate their annual transitions.
For the old Celts, it was Halloween - that “thin space” at
their new year, when it was feared the spirits who had passed on had opportunity
to come close, and perhaps with still unresolved business to
attend with us. Our ‘costumes’ were designed to disguise us
or scare them off. It was the Celts who give us the term “thin space”
to designate these special (positive and negative) times and places. Another
example is the crossroads - which those who have traveled in
Europe still find frequently marked by a religious shrine - representing
the sacred nature of such a decision point. Such “thin
spaces” exist in various forms in all spiritual traditions.
One of the common patterns of life is that oscillating rhythm of fullness
and emptiness. The fullness, untempered by a discipline of thankfulness
or gratitude, can become an opportunity for lethargy and avarice. It is
a primary nature of religion or spiritual practice to cultivate in us
the habit of gratitude - as an effective parent teaches the child all
about “please and thank you.”
At the other end of this rhythm, the emptiness, untempered by a mature
trust in providence and hard work, can become an occasion for despair.
It is that of which I speak further now. And I will dare to speak that
in each empty space there is, for the discerning, the possibility of blessing.
Frequently what brings individuals and couples to my practice is an experience
of loss. In a relationship it can be the loss of joy, or trust, or companionship,
or of the relationship itself. Individually, it can be the loss of happiness,
of hope, of social place, of a vital function, or a pervasive loss of
the meaning of life itself. And, implicit in those who come to me, is
a hope (although sometimes very faint) that this “empty space”
can be somehow “fixed” - that the psychic pain can find relief.
It is the nature of my work and craft to seek
hope for my clients within these empty spaces. If I couldn’t do
this, it would be cruel of me to even work with them. And I’ll tell
them that. But beyond that, there’s not only hope, there’s
a gift implicitly hidden in the empty spaces. That’s what
I mean when I speak of them as also places of blessing. I’ll
often refer to my office as a place “separate from the rest of the
world.” It is itself a “thin space” where the loss or
pain or emptiness of the “rest of the world” can become a
sacred openness to something other, something new, something deeper and
richer, to transformation.
What this means is that all of these “in-between”
places are not just empty, but also places of hope, and even of more-than-hope
- the source of special gifts and energy for us. Much of the art of life
is to open ourselves to this.
But I must also speak of those empty spaces, where there
seems no end in sight. Such is the experience of the critically
depressed, or suicidal, of those who have lost a deeply loved one, or
of the soldier in battle, where all that exists is an ongoing perpetuation
of the very bowels of hell. In such places it is often only the heroic
and purposeful depth of our humanity that allows us to continue standing.
Or, perhaps it’s the knowledge that somebody else
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