The bookshelves were far in the distance. White wood, built-ins along the wall of the room. Floor-to-ceiling, it appeared, although perhaps the bottom part was closed storage. It was hard to tell through the small box in which I saw them, the background to a new acquaintance in a Zoom learning group.
They were shelves out of my own dreams, and I broke the ice by complementing them.
I love your book shelves.
My new acquaintance thanked me, then, as people tend to do, immediately disclosed the “problems” with them: the imbalance of how books were arranged and the big empty spaces on the top shelves that she had yet to fill.
I had a different take.
To me, the empty shelves were a blank canvas, a field of possibility and potential.
What books, as yet undiscovered, would find their way to those spaces?
My new acquaintance’s desire to fill and arrange the shelves was a pattern I’ve seen countless times before.
The Urge to Fill Our Spaces
In 15 years as a residential real estate broker, clients repeatedly have told me they want to move because they don’t have enough space; they upgrade to a bigger home with more space only to fill it with more stuff.
We do the same with our time, which, of course, is just a form of space. Ask people how they’re doing, and they’ll likely give you some variation of “I’m so busy.”
My coaching clients tell me they want to start a blog or workout more, or try meditation. When I ask why they haven’t done so yet, they tell me they don’t have time.
Time is a Form of Space
It’s common in our culture to feel time-starved. Yet what happens when we get time?
We fill it.
Here’s the thing: we don’t always fill it with activity, which makes it hard to pinpoint just where our time goes.
Many times I find myself intentionally creating space to be, only to fill that space with anxiety about the future or rumination about the past.
Or, I might be thinking about an experience and how to turn it into content: the lessons learned, what might be relevant to others.
All of these activities are ways of filling the empty space. They are ways of escaping the present.
What would be so terrible about being here in the present?
The Escape of Planning
… tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. — Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for the Age of Anxiety
In a culture that conditions us to set our visions on the future and recount our experiences from the past, being purely in the present can feel lazy and irresponsible. Even in my time of “doing” nothing, I feel like I should be mentally preparing and planning.
Of course, when we don’t shut down the mental work then we never truly rest and recharge. We drain our energy and risk burnout.
The empty space can indeed breed anxiety, but that’s only because we are so conditioned to fill every corner and crevice of our lives.
The anxiety, then, is not a fear of the emptiness itself, but rather a fear of going against the grain of a culture that tells us we must have it all figured out, that we must plan and control our future and be in constant motion toward our goals.
And yet looking at nature tells us that the emptiness is critical. Without the emptiness, there is no space to create something new.
The Revolution of Embracing the Mystery
This is the space of the mystery. For anyone who seeks control of all things, the mystery can be a scary place. It is the place of the unknown unknowns, unconscious incompetence. And yet also the place where new life, new ideas, new pathways are seeded.
The emptiness is the field of pure potentiality: what might emerge from this vast space? What knowledge can we acquire if we let go of what is no longer serving us? What new books will fill those shelves? What experiences might unfold?
As long as we are filling our spaces, both physical and space in time, we will never find out.
My new acquaintance expressed her gratitude for my perspective, which reframed her thinking about her shelves. She no longer felt the weight of needing to reorganize and fill the shelves. She felt liberated from the fear of emptiness.
Perhaps this is all we need for freedom: a willingness to release, to trust, to be in the emptiness, to sit in the realm of the unknown, to embrace the mystery.
In a culture that bombards us with messages that we don’t have enough, that we need more, this is radical — even revolutionary.