What We Learn From the Space Left In Between

The great pianist Debussy, when asked how he could play those notes so beautifully, responded, “It is not in the notes that the beauty of the music lies; it is in the silences between them.”

The value of space is not limited to music: In art, visual design, web and graphics design and paintings – the blank space is what defines the picture. In writing, the most artistic and successful editing is that which does not go back and add or even rearrange but rather goes back and subtracts.

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away,” reminded French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Music, writing and speech are processes that improve by subtraction of content, not addition. When I first write a piece I see a lump of clay in front of me, that I have to chisel away at – mercilessly – before it gets too old and dry. And, well, lumpy.

So we have the tune, or words – essential but insufficient – What gives it meaning, and life? Tone, inflection, facial expressions, body language and the most important form of the spaces – the rhythm of the silences. Any latin music lover knows the “clave,” the spaces that form the rhythm, is the backbone of the song, without which the song cannot exist. I think a life has a clave, but that’s for another post.

An obvious example of where we don’t have that is email. All we have are bare words. Letters. We can’t extrapolate true meaning from it. I make it a rule to use email only for transmission of necessary factual information. How many of us wished we could unclick it as soon as we sent it? How many of us have misunderstood and misinterpreted an email and then responded accordingly, leading to an argument, a fight, even a damaged relationship? The format of email is just too insufficient. Frighteningly so. It is only the words. The notes. Nothing else. No spaces, no rhythm, no clarity. And what happens when we get no clarity? We project, and our projections are almost always wrong. Wrong by nature – they are our projections, not their reflections.

Perhaps this has such personal meaning to me because I was raised by deaf and blind parents. From the deaf I learned how to truly listen, from the speechless how to express myself, and from the blind how to really perceive. How did it come to be that I have devoted my life and my livelihood to listening, speaking, writing and seeing? I had to learn how to see, hear and feel just by the spaces – between the notes, between the letters, between the two.

The search for meaning in our lives is so difficult because it’s just too damn noisy. Let’s quiet it down, simplify it. Go back and start subtracting. All those things that really didn’t matter after all: The heartache you thought would end your life; that awful first time you had sex; the “F” you got in Ancient Greek; the job you hated (or still hate); your kids that aren’t as perfect as you think they should be, your spouse that is no longer who s/he was when you first met him/her. (Sh/e is not supposed to be!). And then my favorite, the be all and end all: “I’m too old and too poor.” Get rid of it all, sweep it away, toss it in the dumpster. Then take that dumpster down to the beach and burn it all up. You will most likely have to make several trips. These things are just noise. Clutter.

Rather than ruminating on what you want to say to others, leave space – between each other and between your ears – for what they might like to say to you. Listen to their words and their spaces and I promise you will never be alone.

And how about giving ourselves the same courtesy? Take a machete to those delusions of inadequacy and failure, the plans that never materialized (as if we really have any control over them anyway), the things we always wanted to do but can’t anymore. The cacophony going over and over in your mind. Just words. Noise. Clutter. Truth be told it doesn’t even matter if they are (what we think of as) “true.” They just aren’t helpful. If you want to feel better, be better. Happiness is an action – show me. Gratitude is an action – show me. Love is an action – show me. If you don’t like what you see then be it. If you don’t like what you hear, say it. And while you’re at it go find someone to help. I promise you there is no shortage.

Keep going. Why stay in a battle zone? Chip away at what you’ve got until all you’ve got left is a poem. Or a song. Or a space. When there is nothing left to subtract you will see in what remains all that is here and all that really matters. You will hear the silence. You will see the spaces.

What I am left with is Love, in its many different forms – the synergistic power of kindred souls; beautiful music, words, and the silences that define them. I realize then that I need never be alone.

So I say: “Love, let us just be quiet…

Let us look into each other’s faces – I’m excited to find out if we smile, or laugh, or cry.”

We touch, we look, we embrace.

We can hear the silence between the notes and know the music for the first time.

Follow this journey on Dr. Bill’s Blog.

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