Weekly Edgework #72 - November 8, 2005

Empty Spaces

Can real intimacy be reached without a deep respect for that holy place within and between us, that space that should remain untouched by human hands? Can human intimacy really be fulfilling when every space within and between us is being filled? (Clowning in Rome, Henri Nouwen, p. 40)

In an age in which North Americans are by far the loneliest people in the world, many of us naturally seek an antidote to our loneliness by getting closer to others. And indeed, much can be said in favor of coming out of our isolation to connect with others. Many traditional patterns of human relationships in the context of family, community and work place that once offered at least some degree of intimacy have all but disappeared. It is only logical that we should try to overcome this relational deficit by seeking closer interpersonal relationships wherever we can find them.

I am in favor of such a move. But I am afraid that creating true intimacies may be easier said than done. I am often troubled when I listen to accounts of people who have attempted such maneuvers only to come away with intensified loneliness and increased personal pain. Perhaps they didn’t feel heard when they opened their hearts to another. Or confidences were betrayed by the very ones who at first had given them hope for healing. In any case they did not get what they expected from those they reached out to and thus quickly became disillusioned – even resentful and bitter. And in the process the noose of loneliness closed evermore tightly around them, squeezing out all hopes for renewed intimacies.

Is the problem, perhaps, that we expect too much from others? When we think that others can understand us fully, take away our deepest hurts, or offer us constant affection, are we asking too much of them? Perhaps. When we try to fill all the empty spaces in our lives with relational intimacies, we are asking something of others that they are unable to deliver. We are asking them to fill spaces they can not really enter. And if they try, eventually we will find ourselves repelled from the very ones in whom we had placed the hope of relational recovery. How then can we experience intimacy without destroying those spaces between us that should “remain untouched by human hands?”

Henri Nouwen offers two images of connected hands to help us think about this question. Asking too much of others could be compared to the interlocking fingers of two hands. In an attempt to get as close as possible to each other, the two hands fill all the empty spaces between them. At a certain point a stalemate is reached when it is no longer possible to get any closer. All spaces between the hands have been filled. The only possible movement is backwards putting painful pressure on interlocked knuckles. Yet eventually the backward pressure leads to separation. After describing such a scenario, Nouwen states:

When we relate to each other as the interlocking fingers of two hands we enter into a suffocating closeness that does not leave any free space. When lonely people with a strong desire for intimacy move closer and closer to each other in the hope of coming to an experience of belonging and wholeness, all too frequently they find themselves locked in a situation in which closeness leads to friction, friction to pain, and pain to separation. (p. 42)

By contrast, praying hands offer a helpful alternative image to that of tightly interlocked fingers. Here hands are parallel to each other, move freely in relation to one another and together point toward realities beyond themselves. This image is a much healthier one than the former. It speaks to the need not to violate the sacred spaces within and between us. It illustrates our need, even in close relationships, to remain free persons. It allows for adjustments in our connectedness to the other, taking into account our changing circumstances and needs. It offers a rich and fruitful intimacy that protects sacred private spaces and ensures the possibilities of personal and interpersonal growth. And it gently prods us to engage the larger web of relationships that lie beyond our blended boundaries.

This relationship no longer is a fearful clinging to each other but a free dance, allowing space in which we can move forward and backward, form constantly new patterns, and see each other as always new. (p. 43)

I find these images helpful in reflecting on my relationships with people close to me. There is an irony at work here. The tighter we cling to each other the more danger there is of not finding the intimacy we long for. It is taking me a lifetime to learn that marital intimacy is best found when I hold Ruth in an open hand instead of clinging to her – when I allow her to be who she is, to encourage her to grow according to her own schedule, and to allow God to fill the spaces in her life that I need to leave untouched. Placing my up-raised hand against hers in a holy “high five” will always be more life-giving than intertwining my fingers with hers in a smothering grip.

The same holds true for my friendship with others. I must give my friends the freedom to be uniquely different from me, to leave some empty spaces between us untouched and to encourage them to grow into what God calls them to be. I am wrong to try to make over my friends into my own image. If I were successful, how unlikely would be the possibility of knowing real intimacy in an ongoing way. How boring it would be to keep staring at my own visage in the life of my friends. I must have the faith to believe that the empty spaces between our hands raised in a mutual prayer position do not hinder but rather nurture intimacy.