It all started when I looked up to a clear night sky this week and was captivated by the proximity of Jupiter and Venus; two very bright planets surrounded by a myriad of small stars in a black sky of nothing much else. That led me to thinking about the subject of space, both in terms of the universe, and also at a more down-to-earth level in respect to the space between us as individuals; that ‘area of unoccupied ground’ as the Oxford English Dictionary describes it.
Space is very important; it gives structure and meaning to things. For example, without the small spaces between these words, you would not be able to easily read what I have written. Art galleries use space to display their works of art in a manner which can be appreciated; small objects often have a vast area between them and the next artefact, and this emphasises the beauty or intricacy of the item concerned. We also see space utilised in public, often with large garden areas, squares or parkland around important buildings in order to accentuate the grandeur of those buildings.
As individual human beings we also have a need for space. Whether it is the space around your favourite chair at home, your desk in the office, the nominated area of the car-park with your name on it, or that bit of the beach temporarily claimed for your family, we cherish those defined areas and easily become perturbed if something happens to erode that personal territory.
For humans, psychological spaces are equally important. Most of us understand that ill-defined distance that needs to be kept between two strangers if we are not to appear threatening to, or to feel threatened by, the other person. Being invited into that personal space is a sign of accepted friendship and increased intimacy. A hug or a kiss requires crossing that no-man’s land between you; a process which, in its infancy, is often a highly charged moment whilst each person weighs up the other person’s reaction to the apparent intrusion.
However, the opposite is also true. When people are too tightly bound to each other, it is possible for one or both to feel constrained and restricted; we speak of ‘breaking free’ from a relationship, or use phrases such as ‘I need some space’. It is notable that the dictionary also defines space as the ‘freedom and scope to live and develop as one pleases’. In ‘The Prophet’, the Syrian writer Kahlil Gibran, considering the subject of marriage, said ‘let there be spaces in your togetherness’. Just as with trees in a forest, human beings need space to grow and develop within a relationship. We also need space to be seen as the individuals we all are; just as with the objets d’art in the art gallery, or important public buildings.
Yet, though space is important, it can also work against us and cause social divide. The act of inviting someone into your space can be an important act of friendship. Such actions can even help to break down barriers between cultures and communities, and help to remove a sense of isolation that people often feel in the most crowded of places. Reaching out to someone from a different culture or social background, making contact across that psychologically dividing space, can have a profound impact and change lives for the better. ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ wrote St Matthew in the Bible (chp.25, v35).
So, just a few moments of staring into a night sky led to several hours of re-evaluation as to how I see and treat the space around me. Do I have enough personal space to psychologically grow, and do I allow sufficient space around others that they might do likewise? Am I too protective of my space, erecting barriers to keep people out of it? Do I do enough to welcome people into my space? These are important questions if harmony is to exist within our lives and relationships. Space may be an area of emptiness, but I suggest that it is also one of our most valuable commodities, being worthy of our respect and consideration.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 15th March 2012.)