"Recently I spent some time walking in New York City. I realized how most places are filled up with other things. So much is crowded into that place! We seem to have a fear of empty spaces. The philosopher Spinoza called this a horror vacui. We want to fill up what is empty."This was one of those sit up and notice moments for me. I had never actually realized it before, but this is me! When I'm driving, I have to eliminate the space between me and the car in front of me (I stay at a safe distance for sure, just no extra space), and if the car in front of me does not share my compulsion I will feel frustrated until I can pass them and set things in order once again. If I am given an empty space, I will want to fill it with purpose, if not with things. Spacious foyers make me really uncomfortable on a visceral level. Why waste all that space on an entry way? What else might one do there? Living room/family room arrangements can also send my mind spinning.
Same with sensory and intellectual space. I kept mine filled all the time. My own mother kept the television on all the time, and I naturally did the same thing when I grew up. I may not be watching it, but the noise and the picture in the background were comforting. I'm a bit of a news junkie, and I could watch 24-hours news for, well, 24 hours a day. Yes, I even kept the TV on while I was sleeping. When I was away from home, I filled the intellectual space by listening to audiobooks. Occasionally I'd listen to music, but for the most part it was audiobooks, and not having one for my commute time would make me panic! Standing in line somewhere, I'd listen to the audiobook AND check my phone for email and facebook updates.
This comment by Nouwen struck me so hard that I knew it was some kind of a wake up call, and I started scaling back a little bit. I could easily see that filling up spaces in my physical environment had made me life less comfortable. It was less easy to see in my mental and spiritual environment, but I knew it was there nevertheless. The first thing I did was I stopped turning on the television first thing in the morning. Now I get up an hour early in the morning in order to spend that time in Bible study, mind you, but I was turning on the news while I was doing that, and of course there was a bit of a distraction. I also actually started driving to work without an audiobook. I have a pretty lengthy commute, generally 45 minutes to an hour, usually in heavy traffic. I started putting on some worship music during my drive, and spending the time in prayer. I even occasionally left the music off and drove in silence, just me and God.
Last week, however, I began a discipleship program at my church. I didn't really know anything about it until the first meeting. Discipleship, of course, comes from the same root as discipline, and the program is based around a number of disciplines. There is Bible study, journaling, prayer, involvement in ministry, all wonderful and expected things. But there was one I wasn't -- limiting media to two hours a week. Okay, I am a little iffy on the definition of media, and secular media in particular. I got a dispensation for blogging, but honestly most of my blogging is not secular. I still check into facebook a few times a day. I don't spend hours on it like I sometimes used to, but in this day and age, if something happens people don't run to the phone and call everybody. They post it on Facebook. In the last week I have had two of my friends lose family members, one a father, one a daughter. Several others have asked for prayer for people they know who have lost loved ones, and one whose beloved and young dog suddenly went blind and became unable to walk. It's become like a prayer list for me, interspersed with the uplifting and the cute photos of friends' babies and children, memes and stories. Facebook can become a time waster, for sure! I probably would have finished several books by now if I hadn't been able to click over from Word to Facebook whenever I was feeling stressed! So it needs to be kept in its place, and yes, I am doing that.
However, I have not had my television set turned on for four days now.
The first day of this discipleship program I had a really surprising negative reaction. I had looked forward to this, and I wanted to do it, but on that first day I was plagued with exhaustion, depression, and doubt. I came home that evening, and I turned on my TV and checked my DVR. And I watched the most recent episode of "The Dome." I did not watch "Sons of Anarchy," though. And after the show was over, I did turn the TV off, but I'd just had to get out of my head for awhile.
The second day was easier, and each passing day has gotten better and better, and I haven't turned the TV on. I haven't had the depression to escape, but there has been some emptiness. Most of the time, there isn't anybody else around here to talk to except for my dogs. There are a lot of people who live in this house, but they are all adults and have busy lives and usually are not around. So I'd finish washing the dishes in the evening and ... well, then what? Sit on the couch and stare into space? I am tired in the evenings, and usually I would turn on the television AND play candy crush to wind down at the end of the day. So no TV, and no candy crush. Because I am tired, it's not a time I would ordinarily choose for reading, but I have done that. I have done extra Bible studies. Still kind of filling the time, but I am still learning what to do with these empty spaces. Change doesn't happen overnight.
I am still even trying to understand the empty spaces, and the fearfulness they hold. Nouwen says, "Perhaps part of our fear comes from the fact that an empty place means that something may happen to us that we cannot predict, that is new, that leads us to a place we might not want to go. I might not want to hear what God has to say." Is this it? It is absolutely true that in my life God has said things I don't want to hear, through the events in my life. Having lost my daughter, I learned and grew and changed and became someone I would not have been otherwise. There are ways in which I can serve God and serve others that I wouldn't have been able to if I hadn't lost my child. I know we are refined through suffering. It has been a theme in my life, and has become a theme in my Bible studies lately, and as soon as I get a firmer grasp on this I will write about it, but I confess that for many years I was just plain terrified of all that was outside my control. Because of that, I tried as hard as I could to control as much as I could. I was very, very, very careful with my prayers. I could not just open myself up to God. I had to try to control him as well, in order to make certain that I wasn't hurt again, that nobody I loved was hurt again.
It was a long time coming, but I did finally manage to release everything to God's will. It isn't that I have no more fear. It is just that I have learned that being afraid doesn't prevent what we fear. In fact, it more often brings our fears upon us. If you refuse to love because you are afraid of being hurt when you lose the one you love, you have lost them already. It was a struggle, but I did finally reach the point of believing that somehow, even when I can't see it, define it, type it up in neat sentences, all things work together for good. I do believe in God's love. I do believe in his higher purpose, and I want to serve his higher purpose more than I want to keep myself safe. Well, I think so anyway, although yes, there is a bit of a tug in just writing those words, acknowledging to the world what I have previously only committed to before God.
I don't know what lies in these silent, empty spaces to come. If I find out, I will let you know. In the meantime, I will try to let them be what they are meant to be, a time when I can hear from God.