The need for space

There are many ways to define the word “space.” You can think about space as the realm that exists beyond our planet and its atmosphere; you can also think about space in terms of your own body, and the places you go to and occupy, indoors and outdoors.

I think about different types of spaces a LOT—especially mental spaces. I think about the way I feel when I am in an intentionally-created space and I am joined in that space by my husband, my two kids, and my dog (usually, I feel radiant with happiness, in those spaces). I am also aware of the mental spaces I’m in when I’m writing, when I’m absorbed in a book and living in that world with its characters, when I’m absorbing wisdom, and humor, from others.

One of the biggest benefits of getting older is having the experience and the wherewithal to create your own spaces. I see my children, tethered in all sorts of different ways to all sorts of digital technologies, and it is so damn challenging for them to un-tether themselves. Their feelings and friendships and romance dramas get amplified by a thousand when they are in these digital spaces and yet many times, they can’t look away. They have yet to learn the skill of withdrawal from online spaces, and I wonder every day whether their mastery of this skill will eventually require a forced intervention. My son, after suffering a dollop of heartbreak earlier this summer, de-installed his Snapchat and Instagram for four weeks. I was so proud of him for doing that.

Alone spaces are hard to learn, and amazing to experience, once you know how.

What I’m basically saying is, learning how to create, and then occupy, different sorts of spaces takes intention, and some effort, until it becomes effortless. When we first moved out to northern California from Pennsylvania, nine years ago, I was so excited to have my family start living a life outdoors. I was so excited to be able to walk or bike to places, like the library, or a restaurant, or to school. But it did not happen overnight. My kids looked at me like I was crazy when I suggested we walk a half-mile to a place in town.  Now we all spend a lot of time outdoors. We walk our dog, we take hikes as a family, or my kids go to the beach or take hikes with their friends. The outdoor spaces, they had to learn them. Like we do with all spaces new to us.

I think that we are in a time where many of us are on a very steep learning curve with respect to the ideological, value-driven spaces we create and mingle in. We thought we knew these spaces so well, until we didn’t. I am losing an understanding of the space I know as “America,” for example. I thought it was a place where I belonged, that it was my country because of its multiculturalism and democratic values, but now I am finding that literally millions of others feel very differently about this space. I am still trying to understand the spaces occupied by Trump supporters: how in their spaces, they feel seen by Trump and other Republican leaders for their fear, their ignorance, and for the angry and violent thoughts they have, which they direct towards people of different genders, religions, and skin colors. I feel like in their spaces, they are able to freely express thoughts they used to keep mostly hidden away.

There are so many spaces, on so many levels, that are scaring the shit out of me these days. I keep on retreating, like a turtle in its shell, into the spaces of my home, my books, and my writing.

I have the luxury of retreating into those comforting spaces because at the moment, I’m not working full-time. But I wonder, having spent most of my life in an office, that for those who are working in office jobs full-time—i.e., almost everyone I know, whether there have been days when it is very difficult to get up and go to work and put aside the knowledge that there are babies in cages, and parents whose bodies were ripped apart by bullets as they shielded their children, and so on. To occupy the space of an office, a cubicle, or a conference room, and not think, what is happening in the world today? Is that a good thing, or a bad thing, to put aside all of those feelings? Don’t they want to leak out, sometimes, regardless of what deadline or project is looming over you?

And for those of you who are working at home, like me, perhaps you feel as I do: a longing for spaces that offer community and comfort, and a lack of knowledge about where best to find those spaces. Having been brought up with only infrequent exposure to not-very-spiritual religious experiences, I was surprised to find myself wanting to go to church yesterday, after the double-sledgehammer-impact of the El Paso and Dayton shootings. What I was actually feeling, I realized, was a desire for a communal, spiritual space, which I never really felt in the churches I went to while growing up. (I did feel that way during a seder dinner I was once invited to, and also while singing Christmas carols in other people’s churches. Other people’s religious spaces always felt more communal and spiritual than the ones I understood as my people’s religions, e.g., Korean Presbyterians and Methodists.)

So I am thinking about all of the people like me who have spaces, or who maybe need them? Who maybe need more spaces for healing, or different types of spaces? And I am thinking about whether we have reached a time when we need to intentionally create those spaces no matter where we are, or what we do, on a more frequent basis. For leaders of organizations, large and small, I am wondering whether you can add space-making to your to-do list, which I’m sure is formidably long already. But I think this might be important. I think it might be important for you to create spaces for your colleagues, and for yourself, where you and they can still come to work and accomplish things and get paid, but also take the time to step back, draw a breath, and feel. If you do that, I hope that you can make it clear that not everyone at the organization has to heal or connect or feel in the same way, but that for those who just want to be with each other and talk or not talk, the organization will support those spaces. For as long as these terrible things keep on happening. Because they keep on happening.

A memory of two spaces: One of my hardest days at work was in 2016, when multiple black people died at the hands of police officers and then shortly afterwards, police officers in Dallas were shot and killed. At the time, I held a communications executive position, and my colleagues immediately started asking me about whether the organization was going to take a public stance on these events, through social and mainstream media outlets. There were no protocols or policies in place for how to respond to crisis situations that were off-subject for the organization’s work and mission. (Pro tip: develop protocols or policies for how the organization should react to crisis situations! Clarify what “counts” as a crisis situation!) Half the senior leadership team at the time was on vacation, some unreachable. Deciding what to say, and to whom, is always a straightforward decision when I’m deciding just for myself, but it is the exact opposite, heartrending and convoluted and complicated, when I’m charged with shaping a decision or recommendation on behalf of an organization.

I remember not knowing what to do with my own feelings during that time, and feeling helpless when listening or responding to others. I remember my stomach was so tied up in painful knots about what to do, EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE, WHAT TO DO, I went out of my office at one point and lay down on a nearby window bench covered in cushions, in the open office space, because I could not think of any other way to ease the physical pain I was feeling. Probably one of the more unprofessional actions I’ve ever taken (wouldn’t you be alarmed if you found your boss suddenly lying down, incapacitated?) but at that moment, I needed to be in that space. I needed that length of that window bench, with the light coming in from the windows, so I could gain a few minutes of peace and relief from intense pain and stress.

Later on, other members of the senior leadership team and I arranged for a live communal viewing of President Obama’s remarks at the memorial for the Dallas police officers. Afterwards, we stayed on the line and invited others to do so, too. Anyone from any of our office locations could share, talk, and reflect on how we were feeling. I did not say anything during that time. I only felt like listening. Some people said things that I found powerful, and moving. Some people said things that felt awkwardly stated, or felt overly focused on themselves in ways unrelated to current events (although I guess, pain is pain). Some people cried. Overwhelmingly, everyone expressed gratitude for the space that was created for them, on that day.

Space doesn’t fix problems. It doesn’t make all of the horrific things that are happening go away. It doesn’t open the cage doors we locked on our fellow human beings, it doesn’t stop the cold-eyed prowling of officers acting in the name of the law to lock up people who have committed no crime, no transgression, just for simply existing. It doesn’t end the brutal indifference of one human being to another. But space can grant us the time and the boundaries we need to stabilize our personal selves and our professional selves, the distinctions we need to draw between the tasks we need to do for a job and the things we need to do to for our own sanity and health. So we can attend to the things we need to get done on a day-to-day basis and we can also attend to the boatload of feelings and reactions we may have to times like these. Space can replenish our souls, even for just a very little bit, and give us some relief from our pain (like my window bench). And finally, space is absolutely a resource that leaders of any kind—organizational, community, religious—can create intentionally for others.

Give space. Make space. Find space.

[If you’ve finished reading this, I’m sure the word “space” has started to sound really weird to you. Yeah, me too.]