The Need for White Space

When we bought the house we live in now, there wasn’t a lock on the bathroom door. For the first couple of years, this didn’t bother me, and even made sense, because our kids were young and we had rarely locked the bathroom door in our previous house anyway.

Yet a few months ago, it dawned on me that we still didn’t have a lock on the bathroom door, and our kids were now old enough to respect a private moment. So one day, when one of the kids walked in to tell me something they simply couldn’t wait to tell me until I was out of the bathroom, I decided it was time for a change. Shortly after that, we took a family trip to the hardware store to pick out a new door handle, this one with a lock.

This experience got me thinking about how easy it is to feel as though we should always be available, not only for our kids, but often for people in general, and especially in parish ministry. Sometimes, this is because in the past it was necessary for us to be so for a period of time, but sometimes it is also because that is the precedent we have set; the way we have trained people to treat us.

I’ve been known to tell my colleagues, “Just because you have an open space in your day, doesn’t mean it’s free to be taken up by something or someone else.” Yet I frequently need this reminder myself. It is so easy (at least for me) to fall into giving away the time that I might otherwise have taken to exercise, journal, or even work on a sermon.

Over the years, I’ve learned there are several factors related to this tendency. For me, aspects of my personality lend me to be fairly accommodating. Not only that, I am a middle child, and there’s a tendency for middle children to take on a peace-maker role. And then there is the reality that, to a large extent, many of us have grown up with the mentality that it’s somehow selfish to take time for ourselves.

In thinking of this, I’m often reminded of a time shortly into my first call, when I went home one day and told my husband I hadn’t had a chance to go to the bathroom for hours, having spent the day running from one thing to the next. Without skipping a beat he replied, “Lesson one in self-care. Go to the bathroom when you need to go.” It sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s surprising how often I don’t follow through on it, choosing instead to do one more thing or put someone else’s need before my own.

His comment is along the same lines of what anyone who travels by air hears in the opening safety instructions: “In the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first.” Again, this is pretty straightforward.

Yet, I’ve met plenty of women who get what a challenge heeding it can be. Of course, this tension between tending to our own needs and caring for others isn’t just present for women. But as women, the cultural expectation is that it is our role to put others first, even at the expense of sacrificing our own needs.

We’ve taken comments like one made by Maya Angelou to “never ask of another what we can do ourselves,” to mean that we should be able to do it all. Or that if can’t, there’s something wrong with us. We tell ourselves that someday our kids or our aging parents won’t need us so much or that we won’t have so much to do.

In the process, even though we know it’s important, we put so much effort into saying “yes” to others that we end up saying “no” to ourselves. And eventually, it starts to catch up with us. Because the reality is that there’s a direct correlation between how well we take care of ourselves and the extent to which we’ll be able to experience the fullness of life Jesus desires for us.