The Secret of Empty Spaces

September 1, 2008

I remember my eighteenth birthday. I was young and in love, and the road ahead was positively shimmering with possibilities. I was unstoppable, and nothing was impossible.

Then post-eighteen life began unfolding. Strivings, successes, failures, catastrophes. Fortunes rose and fell, marriages and friendships blossomed and crumbled. Some public triumphs, some personal tragedies, more roadblocks and dead ends and cul-de-sacs than I’d ever dream the universe could supply.

This summer, I turned fifty-four. (That’s three times eighteen.) And now? I’m young and in love; the road ahead positively shimmers with possibilities, and nothing seems impossible. It’s good to be back.

This year I celebrated my birthday by spending twenty-four hours not writing anything.

For a writer, spending time not writing is precious, in the same way that cleaning out your closets helps grow your wardrobe and having earthworms in your garden helps the soil bring forth plants. It’s the aeration that comes from introducing emptiness.

Empty space is one of the greatest lessons the passing years unscroll.

It is the core secret of all creative endeavor, the one that most readily divides wannabes from masters. The value of white space in page layout; of silence in music; of understatement in rhetoric. Of knowing when the greatest eloquence lies in not saying anything at all. I think of Jack Benny, Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart, of Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, of the peculiar genius of Steven Wright: all masters of the pause.

In traditional churches, mosques and synagogues there are these vast empty spaces above our heads—extra space, someone once said, “to leave room for God.” In the same way, the conscious pause in action leaves room for inspiration, and the silence of listening makes room for another person.

The networking business, perhaps more than any other mode of commerce, lives and breathes by the creation and nurturance of vast webs of informal relationships. The highest skill for a networker is that of making room for the other person.

Blaise Pascal, writing during the generation of Isaac Newton, when the science of Europe was just beginning to grasp the vastness of the universe, wrote, “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” I like to think of these infinite spaces as a pool from which one may sip when the brain and heart become parched from too much fullness, too much noise.

At eighteen, there was never enough time in the day to do all there was to do, to say all there was to say, and life seemed to strain against its seams. At three times eighteen, there is the more humbling sense that perhaps one has said quite a bit already, and a far greater interest in leaving room for comments from the empty spaces.

(My editorial from the September/October issue of Networking Times, which hits the stands today.)

1 Comment

  1. John,

    This summer I turned fifty-five.

    Once we’re past a half a hundred, empty spaces are welcomed and appreciated far more than during the first “half.” I think we just develop a keener eye and a more solid understanding of what really matters in life.

    The empty spaces used to be filled with frivolous activities and chatter.

    I’ve heard some folks say, “The silence is deadening.” Let’s just assume they haven’t turned fifty yet!

    Write On,
    ~Melanie

    Reply

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