Negative Space


Our son who is a graphic designer has persuaded us of the importance in design of negative space, meaning space not filled with visual information and detail. Think of the proverbial needle in a haystack. Blocked by the clutter of similar shapes around it, the needle does not present itself to the eye. Why is driving through Pennsylvania on Interstate 80 so boring? The beautiful green of the trees is unrelieved. There is not enough negative space to allow the trees to stand out and to maintain interest in the scenery.

When designing and planting her gardens, my wife makes use of our son’s concept of negative space to rest the eye and give prominence to the flowers. I am finding the concept helpful in life.

Muscles grow during the rest periods between workouts. Sleep is essential to growth as well as to health. In a seminary pastoral counseling course, the professor told us that progress in the client’s psyche and life comes, not within counseling sessions, but between them. In his wonderful book, Testing Is Not Teaching, Donald H. Graves explains the virtue of long, slow, deep thinking of the kind not valued in the business world’s model for privatizing public education. Business metrics provide and enforce control over workers and production processes but do not allow for creativity, skill, thought, or growth in the workers.

In theology, negative space is represented by the Sabbath. With the Sabbath come rest, reflection, imagination, appreciation, wonder, prayer, and peace. On our recent trip to England, my wife and I experienced being in London and seeing the Cotswolds, two quite different experiences. Of course, we also saw places and things in London, but our primary experience was one of being in the city. We also had moments of being in the Cotswolds, but our primary experience was that of touring, of looking at and seeing, without enough negative space in our time to be there within those places we saw.

Long ago, I observed that audiotapes of traditional worship services were sleep inducing, even when I had not found the services themselves that way at all. Traditional worship, especially during Communion, allowed time for silent prayer, reflection, quietude, and wonder (none of which reproduces well on audiotape). As services came to be videotaped or televised, space had to be filled as in a stage production. Dramatics, movement, and noise increased while prayer and reflection decreased. Worshipers experienced the production nonstop but what of their own reflection upon the wonder of divine grace and upon their own lives? Even in traditional services, Communion has been speeded up, minimizing time for prayer and quiet thought. The result, I think, is an increasing emphasis upon ingesting the elements themselves at the expense of reflecting upon the wonder of redemptive, suffering love they represent to us. More of magic, less of grace. More like medicine dispensed, less like hope received and shared. We have developed more efficient ways of getting it done (and reducing cleanup), but where is the time (the negative space) for thinking, praying, wondering, and feeling? Sometimes I cannot keep from my mind the irreverent thought of fast food.

In retirement, I am finding that I need negative space in my life – time for being more than doing, time to think slowly with no snap decisions required, to ponder and reflect, to wonder and absorb. I require time away from our society’s incessant and insistent noise, without a to-do list and without problems to solve or situations to manage. Time to rest between workouts, to heal and grow the muscles of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. Time to be self-critical, self-understanding, and self-forgiving, all of which, I believe, enable change.

Yes, I also need time for doing and for being with other people. Negative space does not negate those times but makes them stand out.

3 Comments on “Negative Space

  1. Yvonne Custis

    You express it so very well. I feel that often churches are concentrating so hard on attracting new people they fall into the pattern of providing entertainment rather than giving the good news of the gospel. I realize younger generations find that appealing, but quiet time to reflect on one’s spiritual needs is very important. I guess I’m old-fashioned.

    1. Dick Sindall Post author

      Thanks, Yvonne. No, you’re not old-fashioned, and I read that the appeal of entertaining worship has begun to wear off, at least for some formerly drawn to it. Funny you should comment as you did when I’m currently rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Waiting for Gospel (subtitled, An Appeal to the Dispirited Remnants of Protestant “Establishment”). Hall writes, “The frantic quest of North Americans for entertainment; our fascination with the gadgetry of ‘communication’ (although we may have little or nothing of consequence to communicate!); our excessive interest in food, sex, tourism, or in anything allegedly new: all such realities may be seen as substitutes for any profound or lasting sense of purpose and vocation.” To my Affect Script Psychology friends, those excessive interests would also be manifestations of the avoidance response to shame. Hall is writing about the present uncertainty about any real meaning and purpose in life which is so difficult and painful to face that avoidance becomes very popular. I’ll probably be posting some reflection on Hall’s essays in the book, but for now I’ll say just that he sees the current distress and shame of the mainline churches as a brief opportunity to become the kind of churches we were supposed to be.

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