An Invitation to Our Quiet Spaces

I’ve spent most of my life trying to solve the problem of suffering, both personally and professionally. I think I have more questions now than when I started. But I am sure of one thing: our pain can only be attended to if there is a quiet space around us and a quiet space inside of us. And healing it comes not through doing, but through receiving…

Last January, my oldest son woke up with a large lump at the base of his skull—a swollen cervical lymph node. As I felt the bump, I also felt the sharp-tingle of adrenaline coursing through me.

Swollen lymph nodes are scary.

Because they may be the doorway into an awful lot of pain and suffering.

I faked calm as I called the doctor and scheduled an appointment for mid-day.  As we drove to the medical center, Aidan was filled with ideas and explanations for the lump—a spider bite was his favorite answer. Like most Chicago pediatric offices in the dead of winter, the wait was long with red cheeks and runny noses and listless eyes. Aidan continued to speculate incessantly about insect bites and allergic reactions. In the frantic activity of thoughts, analysis, and confident solutions, I knew I was witnessing my son’s best attempt to keep his fear contained to a quiet place inside of him.

And I knew he had learned to avoid his fear from the master: his dad. In his torrent of thoughts, I saw my own hurried, compulsive ways of avoiding, numbing, and distracting from my quiet, anxious places.

As Aidan and I waited in the pediatrician’s office that January afternoon, I pulled out a coin, hoping to distract him from his anxious thoughts, complicit in the game of avoidance. I was certain a little magic would do the trick (okay, pun intended).

I laid my palms face-up, placing the quarter at the base of the index finger on my left hand. Then I quickly turned my hands inward, slapping them down on the table. The centrifugal force propelled the coin out of my left hand and toward my right, where I pinned it to the table as I slapped the right hand down. To the untrained eye, the quarter appeared to have travelled between hands by magic. My son was amazed, all lump-thoughts forgotten.

But true to who he is, he would settle for nothing less than a complete explanation.

So I told him to watch the space between my hands.

I performed the trick again, and he exclaimed with joy, “I saw it, I saw the light shine off the coin as it flew across!”

And that’s when it hit me: Our pain is like that coin.

Our pain can only be glimpsed in the space between our actions.

And I suddenly understood my son needed to have space to feel his pain. So we stopped, and we breathed a few times together, and then I asked him what he worried the doctor might tell him. And my so-young son uttered a word I didn’t even know was in his vocabulary.

He said, “Cancer.”

The quiet space between all of our activity can hurt.

It can hurt so badly.

I think we all have quiet places inside of us, and regardless of how charmed our lives have been, we exist in a broken world, and our quiet places have been filled with all sorts of suffering:

The worry of an existence that is mostly unpredictable and out of our control. The aching loneliness we feel in a busy, distracted world. The inevitable grief of lives touched by illness and death. The anguish of betrayal. Helplessness in the midst of unspeakable injustice. The shame we hide away, as we compete for a sense of worthiness.

Our quiet places hurt so badly. It’s no wonder we want to avoid them.

And the world offers us countless distractions, some more obvious than others. We drink and flood our resentment with momentary euphoria and numbness. Or we stick needles in our veins. Or we anesthetize with rage, always exploding with angry demands and never focused on ourselves. Or we turn to sex, and we make it an escape, rather than a union.

But the world also hands us a menu of more subtle and acceptable—even exalted—methods for avoiding the discomfort of our quiet places.

We compulsively check Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. (Blogs are excluded. Obviously.) We web surf, whiling away the hours “stumbling upon” that for which we aren’t even really searching. We shop and purchase and decorate and rack up the debt of distraction. We purchase forty sports channels and enough digital video recorders to capture it all. We eat, because it is almost impossible to swallow food and feel sad at the same time. We turn faith into a religion that anesthetizes our pain, rather than an event giving us the strength to walk directly into our pain and the suffering of a broken world. And we work, and work, and work.

With so many attractive alternatives, why would we ever choose to enter into our quiet places, where we may catch the glint of light off the surface of our suffering?

I received the answer from a friend last Friday night, at a park, while our kids played.

It was a glorious May evening—the new-green leaves were choreographers, directing the dance of light upon a field of newly-mown grass and a playground undulating like a beehive, all of it set to the music of children shouting and laughing in the moment.

I stood in the middle of all that glory, and my friend talked to me about healing from alcoholism. He told me that real healing in Alcoholics Anonymous doesn’t happen during the 60-minute meeting.

The real healing happens in the fifteen-minute spaces before and after a meeting.

Because by arriving early and staying late, not knowing anyone and laid open by the admission of your addiction, you have to face your own loneliness, shame, fear of rejection, and vulnerability. You have to resist the urge to act busy and self-important by flicking through your smart phone and, instead, just sit there, completely open to the quiet space and how much it hurts to not belong and to risk further rejection.

But, as it turns out, the healing is in the hurting.

My friend added: If you can enter that space, if you can sit there and endure it, you discover it doesn’t last as long as you expected. Because someone will sit down next to you, and they will join you in the space, and they will understand what you are going through.

Upon entering the quiet-aching space, we discover the premium we have placed on comfort and painlessness was cheap relief coming at a great price. We discover that, in our effort to avoid the quiet places, we were unwittingly poring the salt of loneliness onto the wounds of a lifetime. We discover that, by making our quiet spaces and our wounds available to others, we are met in our pain by a welcoming eye and a gentle hand. We discover the pain is bearable, because we are not bearing it alone. And we discover that healing is not about getting rid of our pain—healing is about being met in our pain.

We are met by a stranger who is about to become a lifelong friend.

We are met by a lifelong friend who wants all of us, not just the fun parts.

We are met by a parent or a spouse who is truly in it for-better-or-worse.

We are met by a therapist, who spends time with so many others but has still reserved a special place for us in his heart.

We are met by a still, small voice inside of us, whispering, “You are not alone.”

As it turns out, being joined in the quiet-hurting places is the soothing balm for which we have been so frantically searching.

When we make our quiet spaces and the pain therein available to ourselves and to others, we may even discover there is a party waiting to happen there. It’s not the kind of party the world throws, characterized by food and drink and disconnection. It’s a radically different kind of party. It’s a party in which our whole being is celebrated, in which vulnerability and authenticity and connection are the party favors, and the guests are a motley crew of also-broken and suffering companions who are ready to be with us in all our mess.

A party like that can redeem anything.

Share Your Comment! Has anyone ever met you in your quiet space? Perhaps you would like to share a tribute to them in the comments below?

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 And always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift.

Photo Credit: Photo taken from Cabin Fever Adventures.

P.S. Several concerned readers have inquired about Aidan’s health. I originally intended to include this in the post, but as it got longer, I failed to return to the resolution of his situation. The doctors were unable to identify a specific cause for the swelling. They diagnosed it as infected and instructed us to wait and monitor it, as the swelling was likely to go down on its own. After several weeks, the lymph node returned to normal size, and Aidan is doing fine. Thank you for your concern!

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Matt

    Dude you have a blog!?

    • drkellyflanagan

      I do. 🙂 I hope you guys are well!

  • Amy

    How is your son?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Oh my, that’s a big oversight, and thank you for asking, Amy! I planned to incorporate the resolution into the post, but I didn’t end up doing it because, at 1500 words, I feel like I already ask so much time of readers. Aidan is fine. The doctors failed to find an explanation. Saliva and blood tests came back negative, and they told us to wait to see if the swelling went down. It eventually did, so they chalked it up to an infected lymph node fighting off the winter sicknesses. Relief! I hope you and yours are well, too.

  • Athanasia

    I have a friend who responded to my sorrow Nd pain with the following statement, ” God is doing this to you because you aren’t obeying Him by not moving.”. She was trying to be funny. In my despair, I missed her humor and took the comment as an arrow into the heart.

    Several years later she heard a sermon about people who struggle with despair. She called me and apologized for her lack of compassion and understanding of me and the despair I felt. I appreciated it so very much.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This blog has been helpful to me.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sometimes, even the most well-intended comments can hurt, can’t they? I always hope I don’t hurt people with the words in my posts. I’m glad you were encouraged by them!

  • John

    Great thoughts, thank you for sharing them with us. The other thing about that quite place, is that it is in the present–the now. So difficult to stay in the present these days with all those distractions.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Well said, John!

  • Kim

    Hi Kelly,

    I love this. I’ve learned this year that the more willing I am to share my quiet spaces, the less alone I have to be in them. And when I started a blog and shared it with a few trusted friends who knew nothing of my history, they, in turn, invited me into their own quiet spaces, and I was able to both receive and give the gift of acceptance and love in the middle of pain and uncertainty.

    I’ve spent my life hiding my quiet spaces from everyone, including myself. But Truth and Grace and Love are in those spaces, and I was hiding those from myself too. I didn’t even know.

    Lately, I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about “Small Spaces”…about focusing on a small-enough space to become present and wiling to go into the quiet. The smallest space, for me, is the in-out of a breath, and that grounds me…but sometimes the “small space” is the connection between my son and I while we play Sorry or the inside of my van as my teenager tells me about his day.

    Thank you again for your beautiful, thoughtful words. They always bring peace.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Kim, Yes. “…Truth and Grace and Love are in those spaces…” Spoken like someone who is truly finding her way into all the complexity and goodness of the quiet spaces. Can’t wait to read your writing again.

  • Carolyn Hatchett

    Hi Kelly, I enjoy reading your posts. You know, while I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think about how I’ve changed over the years. One is in my “driving.” I used to be horrible about not giving myself enough time to drive to certain places. I found myself always driving too fast, or getting really irritated with other drivers and their “lack of driving skills.” Now that I’m a stay-at-home Mom, I don’t do that anymore. Mostly because I don’t have to be anywhere anytime soon. When I schedule appointments its usually during off-peak traffic times. And yes, I drive like an old lady. If I hit 60mph that’s impressive. So, what I found is that I actually enjoy driving to get my taskers done. I never have the radio on, and everyone knows I can’t drive with my cell phone on anyway. This has become my quite time…..I enjoy looking out the window and I actually look forward to red lights so that I can take in the scenery. Sounds really odd in this day and age right? But, I’ve learned so much about my neighborhood its crazy. Now, when Tony gets into the car with me on the weekends, he can’t stand the fact that I purposely get behind a slower moving car on the highway. He’s always telling me that I could go around, or “honey, why are you staying here, you could have passed this and that and could be over there already.” I just tell him that I’m not in a hurry. The slow car acts like a pace car for me. (I haven’t gotten a speeding ticket in a long time now.) So, thinking about your post, and “quite times,” I feel that I’m really fortunate to able to experience this new, relaxed, content, enjoyable mood I’m in when I’m driving….For the record, I’m convinced that road rage is a choice, not a result…

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts again, Carolyn; keep them coming! I like the way you have taken a typically stressful situation and turned it into a place of tranquility. I know someone who purposefully chooses the longest line at the supermarket, with the same purpose. What a beautiful way to be free of the rush and pressure of life. Hope you guys are well!

  • TMO

    I found my way here to your blog following several random links and seeing your blog I thought it wasn’t really for me, I don’t do relationships, I’m no good at the social and trust aspects that make friendships work. Then I saw the link about Intimacy & Vulnerability and found myself drawn to it. I understand the concepts and can see and vocalise the feelings other people have and why they have them but somehow can’t make myself react to them in the way most people do instinctively. A few people have learnt that I say what I feel and if I think something needs to be done or said I just do that, but most people don’t stay around that long. Instead I spend my time alone, even in a crowded room I never feel anything but lonely. I love my family, I know them better than they know themselves, I know exactly what to say or do to make them smile, to make them feel good about themselves and happier if they’re feeling sad. The few friends I have come to me for this as well, and when I was at university someone even gave my phone number out to someone who was so depressed they were suicidal as they knew I would be able to deal with it.

    The thing is I can’t really deal with it, I’ve been where they are, I probably will again in the future, and recently a friend of mine took her life despite everything her friends tried to do for her. I can open up here a little, the anonymity of the net allows for that to a certain extent. I’ve told people who know me, or tried to by writing on my tumblr feed or telling them in person/by email, I’ve tried to explain how it has made me feel but I can’t help feeling guilty and I can’t help wondering if I’ll ever be better than her when it comes to the loneliness we both shared even when we were together. I came here at nearly 1am on a Saturday morning because I’m filling up the quiet space you mentioned in this post with tv, books, and senseless net browsing, I’ve asked for help from people before, people who are supposed to provide that help, and it’s never been there. I can’t ask my family as I’m the one they all come to; I’m the one who helps everyone else, I see what they’re going through and can’t tell them about what I need because I can’t burden them with it, I can’t let them see me because I have to be strong for them and be there to help them.

    I just wanted to comment to let you know that in the few hours I’ve spent tonight wandering aimlessly around the web this post hit me in a way that made me stop and think. It made some of the feelings I normally bury bubble to the surface and allowed me to release a little of the hurt I’m feeling right now.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you for sharing. Many of the people who see a therapist are in the same position as you–they are the helpers in their circles and so it’s necessary to be intentional about finding someone who is dedicated to helping you in a unilateral way. I highly recommend you establish such a relationship. Best of luck to you.

  • Loretta St. John

    Man, oh man. This is gut wrenchingly beautiful. I read this, right in the middle of trying to sit through the very quiet space you write about and it settled on my heart deeply. Every word, but especially these words…

    “We are met by a lifelong friend who wants all of us, not just the fun parts.We are met by a parent or a spouse who is truly in it for-better-or-worse.
    We are met by a therapist, who spends time with so many others but has still reserved a special place for us in his heart.
    We are met by a still, small voice inside of us, whispering, “You are not alone.”

    At the risk of sounding like a debbie downer, I’d like to say that my experience has been that it is so rare to find this “motley crew of guests”. Am I alone in this? I deeply desire those connections, and have clawed and crawled my way from a closed heart that panicked at the notion of vulnerability or authentic connections, to a place of a wide-open heart who desires nothing more than to party with the same kind of people. I want to party with that crew. I especially would love to find that kind of spouse. I sit, this morning in that quiet space, feeling the pain of a broken heart, another goodbye. Another guest who was drawn to the party, out a longing of their own heart to find true love, vulnerability and authenticity, but found the party to be too uncomfortable, too real, too painful to stay. Another guest who would rather watch from a window, instead of joining the party.

    My temptation is to scale back my optimism about finding and sharing connections (especially the very personal kind… a spouse) and to accept that my party will be a very small one, maybe even a party of one. But, in some way, I feel like even that would be filling the quiet space of longing, of optimism, of hope, that those connections, those hearts, those same kind of party guests are out there, looking for the party, too, even if today’s painful reality reflects the opposite.

    Thank you so much, Dr. Kelly, for this post. It stokes the embers of hope.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Loretta, I’m glad you found this old post and that it has inspired some hope for you. A couple of years later, I’d probably write it a little differently. I’d say we have to find the still, small voice first, and then it will lead us to the people in the world who will see us and love us for who we are. Hope that helps a little more!