The Spaces Between
What COVID-19 has taught me about life, love, and work
“Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
This quote is often mistakenly attributed to Victor Frankl, the famed author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Whether or not he wrote or spoke these words, they hold great meaning, especially during this time of social isolation and physical distancing.
The statement refers to the difference between reacting and responding to a stimulus or situation. To respond, is to analyze and consider a number of factors before acting. Reacting, on the other hand, is almost an instinctive, instantaneous action. The one action welcomes space. The other ignores it.
Stuck at home, approaching middle-age, unemployed, and attempting to keep my five-year-old son ’edutained’ during the COVID crisis, I have also discovered other ‘spaces between’. Consider the following:
My wife spends most of the day on the top floor of our house working in our home office, while I base myself at the kitchen table, two floors away (if I’m not outside). Even though we are living and working in the same house, we are, in effect, physically separated from one another for the majority of each week day.
Most relationships are now virtual. There are no hugs. No two-cheek kisses. No high-fives. We Zoom and text, making liberal use of emojis and exclamation marks. It is surreal engagement, that as not a preferred reality for humans, inherently social creatures. Fixating one’s gaze on a pinhole camera to participate in a ‘face-to-face’ conversation is bizarre and unsatisfying. We have been forced to adopt an unnatural way to hang out.
For me, commuting to a job has ended and work deadlines no longer preoccupy my mind. Coffee shops have devolved to ‘drive-thru’ outlets setup to get patrons in and out as quickly as possible. Dining out has become predominantly take-out-centric. There are no gyms to go to and even today, yellow caution tape remains around most playgrounds.
The ever elusive ‘work-life balance’ has been up-ended.
Looking at the three scenarios above, I am thankful that I have found three distinct ‘spaces between’: 1) being a dad; 2) connecting with things and people who matter (including myself); and 3) contemplating future employment in the context of the ‘new abnormal’.
My most cherished ‘space between’ is the time I have to be a father and to be with my son. When he went to school, I used to make his lunch in the morning, but never see him eat it. I used to choose an outfit for him, but never have any idea of what he did all day. Now I see him daily. We enjoy meals together. I read to him. We wrestle. I also get to watch him play — at a distance — with his friends, and he educates me on the extraordinary exploits of the Paw Patrol crew. It has been wonderful to see him develop social skills, learn, run around, ride his bike, and ask questions that challenge me to answer with wisdom, kindness, and love.
The current crisis has forced all of us to avoid each other, but it has also brought many of us closer together. For example, I spend more time connecting with my immediate family. This includes a weekly Zoom meeting, with the chairmanship rotated weekly, in which we connect from three different locations. There are at least 12 of us who log in to laugh, chat, and appreciate each other. These gatherings feature faces on screens and the chance to see and hear how we are all doing. Similarly with friends, we don’t just text anymore. We speak face-to-face on WhatsApp that for me is a friendship upgrade.
Certainly, a large part of realizing more ‘spaces between’ is the fact I’m currently not employed. As a result, I have more time to read, write and ponder life. Accompanying this outward gain in perspective has been an inward journey, as I have developed a daily habit of meditation, coupled with Wim Hof breathing. During these times of quiet, I find invisible and unnoticed spaces, like the moments between inhaling and exhaling. As I become more introspective, learning to pause more, I am becoming a better father. Before reacting to a misbehaving child, I now take a breathe, and respond with love and care. Previously, I might have said “stop that!” or “what are you doing?” Today, I first listen to myself and take a moment to judge how best to respond. While I am not 100% successful in being empathetic and thoughtful in my responses, it is certainly better than before.
It seems that from a negative situation, positive changes have occurred in how I view my value in society. This includes my role and responsibilities as a father and better appreciating the ‘invisible work’ of parenting and teaching. I am learning to develop better relationships and through a process of ‘looking within’, I have come to better understand what I want from employer and my work environment.
While COVID is causing many societies to reimagine, and reinterpret, and reboot themselves, it has equally challenged individuals to find spaces between. On a recent ride through Toronto’s ravines — impressive green spaces in the midst of the city — I was reminded of the importance of finding new places, discovering a different pace, but also the power of choice.
It reminds me of a quote, legitimately attributed to Frankl:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation,
we are challenged to change ourselves.”
Indeed. Imposed isolation and physical distancing should not prevent us from abandoning the freedom to choose how we ‘show up’. We all have a choice in how we pursue relationships, build community, and care for other.
We can also choose to find more ‘spaces between’.