Even this year the stores began putting up their Christmas decorations in October, to signal to us all that “the happiest time of the year” had begun. It’s a strange sort of getting ready. Governors in multiple states are renewing lockdown orders. Travel is down. My next-door neighbor has gotten creative. She’s focused all her decorating efforts on her front porch for Christmas, rather than inside the house. (There will be an outdoor, socially-distanced gathering with children and grandchildren outside, around a small tree.)
At home and in church, we’re all painfully aware of the traditions and festivities we are missing—the concerts and ballet performances; the office parties and neighborhood open houses; the festive choirs, pageants and packed pews on Christmas Eve. We’ve spent so many years complaining about the frantic pace of the holly-jolly season. But this year, for many, it’s as if someone heard our complaints and suddenly turned the frenzy knob down from maximum to almost zero.
This year’s constraints are especially hard in a culture that values seeing and being seen. Human beings can be a bit like creative, sophisticated peacocks. Modern life has given us tools that amplify our natural tendencies. Whether it’s on our Facebook feed or in our Christmas newsletter, the holidays are a time when we pay special attention to the image we project to others. And, in a typical season, Christmas provides lots of occasions to show the world how happy and connected we are. But this year there are fewer opportunities to project our happy-happy in person, fewer places to photograph ourselves on display.
If you have ever studied design, you may have heard of something called “negative space.” It’s basically the backdrop that goes unnoticed. It’s the empty space—the solid drape behind a model in a photo shoot; the white page that makes it possible for you to see the black letters on a page of text. When there’s too much clutter, when there’s not enough negative space, it becomes hard to see well. Great artists know that removing a line or a color or a shape can be the key to creating something powerful. Strangely, it seems, more does not always mean more.
This year I’m experiencing the power of negative space. With the usual activities down to a minimum, I’m able to see differently. I miss the pace and excitement of the holiday season. But I’m finding a clear backdrop that makes what’s important in my life, and what’s missing and out of balance, stand out more clearly.
When my children were very young, our days were full of activity and messes and upsets and joys. I remember those times with nostalgia. And I also remember the tender, still moments when I would watch them sleeping. I would think about the ups and downs of our shared lives. And I would feel the power of both the active doing and the quiet resting.
The emptiness, the loss, the quiet and isolation—it’s all a negative space that makes it possible for us to see more clearly what is potent and meaningful in our lives.
For more thoughts about seeing clearly in this season of getting ready for Christmas (the church has a name for this season; it’s called Advent), listen to the latest two episodes of my podcast: “The Invisible Gorilla” and “Things Aren’t Right In the World.”
We’re all in this together.