Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Causality of Negative Space

I came downstairs the other day to find my dh reading a book with the title: "Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use" and - I am not making this up - grinning from ear to ear. He paused long enough to furiously scribble a note in the margin and then went back to the book, loving every minute of his "just-for-fun" reading. Now, I'm hardly one to cast stones - after all, I read philosophy and theology, neuroscience and even occasionally quantum physics thrown in for good measure. But I must admit, watching my husband go back to school and find his passion has been a kick.
We've both been surprised to discover the number of ideas his studies have stirred up with significant parallel applications in our respective fields of geek-dom. What he gets all excited about exploring in the context of evaluation often has fascinating relevance for my theological investigations. His note in the margin on Sunday was one of those ideas: "the causality of negative space." I'm sure he'll take that and run with it in a paper for grad school or a journal article, but I've been brewing over what that looks like in my own context.
We Americans focus a lot of energy on cause-and-effect, generally assuming that the greater force we exert on the cause end of the equation, the greater effect we'll achieve. We're proactive doers, and intimately familiar with the causal nature of activity.
But what about "negative space?" Silence, stillness, inactivity - do these yield results as well? Looking back over my life, I think many of the very best things were actually brought about by an active participation in, or at least embracing of, "negative space." My attempts to meditate, for instance. Miserable a failure as I may be, the regular practice of stillness has softened and slowed me down. Or having learned to [very occasionally] be silent in conversation. What a gift, to sit and simply enjoy the presence of one I care for. And what remarkable connections have been forged in silence, rather than in frantic conversation. My husband's extended unemployment years ago - negative space in so many ways cleared the way for a fullness we could never have dreamed up. In the arena of faith - the empty place of darkness and doubt yielded fruit that could have grown in no other way. In parenting, sometimes making myself "absent" is precisely the motivator my children need to step up and fill the space with their own efforts and achievements.
I think we busy doers have much to learn from this notion. The goals we so often "tackle head-on" and strive after are perhaps best pursued in a radically different way. The inverse of our instinct, in fact, may often be the most effective means of reaching our objectives. We would do well to look for this "negative space" - to see where in our life it has been formative, to consider where in our lives it might be put to constructive use.

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