In a very fulfilling week I had the opportunity to meet with four different people who found themselves in very distressful situations. As they described their series of misfortune I soon realised how isolated and helpless they must have felt.
In summary they recently faced diagnoses of severe mental conditions, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, romantic break-ups and a suicide attempt. One lady’s brother had been admitted for drug abuse after a relapse. She had to look after him as her mother is old and frail. She started explaining that she had lost her husband the previous year and although she attempted to regain a stable financial income again, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the growth of her business. Her two happily married sisters withdrew from her because of her problems and her only sibling who supported her financially was recently in a motor vehicle accident and lost most of his own income.
By default I constantly search for solutions, or at least some encouragement, but I soon felt myself ‘up against the ropes’. “How do some people survive conditions like these?”, I thought. All I could do was listen – as I did with the other three people. The results were the same each time: at the end of our conversations they visibly looked ‘lighter’ and even smiled as they thanked me for listening. Unfortunately, none of them could find a single other being that would do the same.
I remember a clergyman of some sorts once explaining the relationship between love and space. “Strange”, I thought at first, but he drove the point to clarity with very common examples: What do we create when we build shelters for the homeless, invite a friend to our dinner table, or schedule an appointment to meet with someone who needs to talk? We create space. What do we take a way when we sentence someone to prison, or solitary confinement, or ground a child for mischief, or when we don’t invite a friend to our party? There is a measure of pain associated with the taking away of space?
Type of space
There seems to be different kinds of space, though. We understand physical space, but there is a space which is less tangible, although very real. Let’s call it psychological space.
Physical space is a commodity of love as much as it is one of power. The rich, powerful and selfish have lots of it; and the poor and powerless have limited space. Those who love give a lot of it and those who don’t keep it to themselves while displacing others. Do the selfish not have big houses and the poor small ones?
Psychological space, though, seems to be the type of space most lacking today. It is climbing in value as it is growing in demand. If you don’t believe me, check what a psychologist’s/psychiatrist’s hour is worth. Because it is true that everyone of the people I met this week had a dwelling place, none of them found any space.
A space is created when one person is in the vicinity of another. It creates the potential for something to happen which is absent when we are alone with ourself – even if we should find ourselves with physical space as big as the Kalahari desert. But space for what? To be. To be fully. To be fully themselves – as they really are. None of these four people felt safe enough to tell anyone how they felt, what they were thinking or ask what they were lacking. They probably thought that if they did tell others about or even show them their anger/ disappointment/ suicidality/ hopelessness/ fear or uncertainty, that they would label or judge them as someone they weren’t. (The problem with stigma – it takes away the space for someone to have a chance to be themselves before being labelled something else).
But it is becoming clear now that neither having physical space nor being in the vicinity of others is enough to create psychological space. You can be most lonely when you are with others. This leads us to the space that really matters. There are two ways of listening: one is passive and the other is active. If you listen passively you will hear the facts; if you listen actively you will hear the message. Let me explain with one example: if you listen passively when locked in an argument with a loved one you may hear her anger about your decision to have drinks with your friends without discussing it with her and you may grow resentful and do the easy thing – stand up for yourself and explain how hard you worked during the week and how much you deserved this break. Listen actively and you may hear her message – that she values you so much that she would not want to miss out on an adventure causing you so much joy as the one you shared with your mates. You might have to concede that you could have handled it better and ended up with a much more favourable outcome, did you pay attention.
But this active listening takes up energy. It requires us to do the nitty gritty of engaging our prefrontal cortices and actually understanding. It leads to the activation of our limbic lobes and the generation of empathy. It requires a greater amount of our energy stores to burn up as our brain cells fire intentionally. (In summary it requires the use of our brains). This is the space that matters – a greater amount of receptors occupied in a greater amount of neuro-circuits that conjures up the empathy and understanding that forms the borders of a space for others to truly be (as they relate to others).
This in itself might be enough to help someone a great deal, but this space may have another advantage. I mentioned earlier that it also creates potential. Potential for what? To grow. Giving someone space enables them to see the reality of their circumstances and who they are and how far they have come. It might well be the space they need to plan their next step or change their direction. (1)
I hope you remember this the next time you open the circle bigger for a new friend to join, invite a stranger to your next holiday, create a time slot in your daily planner, you are giving something very valuable.
The problem with religion
It got me thinking about the problem with religion. If we accept that God is waiting for us in heaven, it is to evaluate our works/deeds, and then what? To judge? The ultimate effect of judgment is to take away our last bit of space. If we see religion like this we are in danger of losing space as we try to adhere to laws with the sole purpose of avoiding judgment. Where is the love, then? Well, right here. In the space between here and there, now and then. The space between who we are and who we could be, the space taken up by our spiritual growth between our immature and our mature selves.
If the Holy Spirit was sent to us after Jesus left, why do we have Him with us? If He is here, where is He? Next to us? If He is next to us, what is He saying? If He is not condemning us every time we stumble, what is He doing? If we accept that He is not judging for now, He most probably is encouraging us. When Jesus was on earth He was not impressed by those who kept the law, because their hearts were rotten, because they stopped growing. God wants us to grow because He wants us to succeed and that is why we wake up with a new chance every day, with new space.
The association between love and space is undeniable. Arguably, life itself is God making space for the human race, the Trinity opening up the circle bigger to join in relationship. If God is love and sharing space with Him is the abundance of life, then there could be only one reason He left us for a while: to create more space.
“There is more than enough room in My Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?”Jesus (Joh 14:2)
- The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck. London: Arrow books. 1978.