The Uses of Not

The Uses of Not

Artists and interior decorators know the meaningful impact negative space can make. It is the high ceiling, the white canvas around a complex shape, the emphasis of that which is not the center of attention. And sometimes, they play with this concept. What can the piece be if the negative space is the focus, when more is actually less, when the absence centers us and brings us something we hadn’t expected? It is Rubin’s vase, Escher’s tessellations, the Japanese garden.

I reflect today on what Ursula K. LeGuin translates from the Tao Te Ching as “The Uses of Not.” I am often focused on what I need to do, who I need to be, the things I must provide. My best friends share, half with laughter and half in lament, about their chronic exhaustion. They are the best and brightest among us, and we are all tired. Why? Who whispered in our ears that to be of value we had to give it all? I question if we should want the brass ring if the contest emaciates us in the process.

I was very tired yesterday evening. I pushed through a long day of work and back-to-back meetings with that five o’clock hour shining like heaven from my pit of darkness. That peaceful light was an illusion, however, since leaving work means clocking in as a mom, holding down the fort as my husband, Alex, walks the dog, planning for dinner, sneaking in some laundry or dishwashing, and also choosing between quality time with Alex, relaxation, reading, writing, and exercise. I squeeze so much of my favorite parts of life into the last hours of the day. Most of what I live for happens after the sun has already descended.

Somehow, I pushed myself to a yoga class. I knew my body needed to move after sitting still for so long. In those sixty minutes, our teacher led us through a series of asanas, or poses, designed to help us reconnect our minds with the reality of our bodies. She encouraged us to set down the busyness at the edge of our mats and, each time our minds reached out to pick that busyness up, to gently bring our attention away from there and back to our breath.

I found myself expending effort to unweave exactly the mindset I’d worked all day to knot together. The efficiency and rapid multitasking I used from 8:00 to 5:00 were crowding into the rest of my life. I felt guilty when not accomplishing two things at once or missing items on my personal To Do list. I constantly calculated the opportunity cost of choosing one priority over another. I needed to carve negative space back into my day. The air moving in and out of my lungs was the focus.

Hollowed out, clay makes the pot.

Today, as I plan my day and week, I am working to protect moments of rest throughout my schedule. In those minutes where I am not obligated to do anything, I can replenish my resources and strengthen my mental acuity for the realities of my professional life. I bring my best, most empathetic and strategic self when my wick isn’t burned down into the candle wax.

What about you? Does rest feel like a luxury that you need to deprioritize for more urgent matters? Is it a reward that you crave once the work is done? What if the work is never done? Perhaps you, too, could be sustained by the reminder that rest is not a reward, and it’s not meant for occasional self-care. It’s a basic human need. And living without it is diminishing our creativity, our empathy, and the core quality of our lives.