Creating A “Friendly Emptiness”

A friendly emptiness? That sounds paradoxical. Let me explain.

In my blogs I write about how to include and interact effectively with those who might, at least on the surface, differ from us. Perhaps I am naïve in still believing this is desirable and possible. In the last few years we have seen a dramatic increase in language, law and policy that seeks to divide us into categories where some are included and others excluded or treated as “less than.”

Yet, I still believe that we must work together across differences—real and perceived—to solve the complex issues facing us in our communities and organizations.

A colleague in Singapore, Wendy Wong, recently introduced me to the writings of Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest. His words renew inspiration as they also invigorate the idea of “hospitality”.

He writes, “In our world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found.”

We see the search for a place where life can be lived without fear in the massive migrations occurring around the world. The number of international migrants worldwide continues to grow reaching 258 million in 2017, up from 220 million in 2010.

People’s response or reactions to these “strangers” is becoming more hostile. Nouwen notes that “Our society seems to be increasingly full of fearful, defensive, aggressive people anxiously clinging to their property and inclined to look at their surrounding world with suspicion, always expecting an enemy to suddenly appear, intrude, and do harm.”

It appears that we are increasingly getting caught in our identities regarding nationality, race, or religion than in our common identity as human beings. This identification with “tribes” also occurs in our organizations and communities. In meetings, if you work in manufacturing, do you perceive colleagues in sales and marketing as strangers or “the other”? Or, if you live on one side of the proverbial tracks do you think your neighbors from the other side of the tracks are “infesting” “your” community?

Nouwen offers an alternative view: “When hostility is converted into hospitality then strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them. Then, in fact, the distinction between host and guest proves to be artificial and evaporates in the recognition of the new found unity.”

Through genuine curiosity and listening, we can begin to understand the promise that strangers carry with them. Even when those “strangers” are people we have worked with or lived near for years but have never stopped to ask, “How did you come to see this situation as you do?” “What inspired your interest this work? Or, “What drew you to live in this area?”

Recently I asked one city official how she had become dedicated to working to make things better for her community. She described how her commitment grew from a painful experience in a legal battle as a child. Now I begin to understand the promise she carries with her.

Nouwen again: “Hospitality, therefore, means primarily the creation of a free space where strangers can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy…The paradox of hospitality is that it wants to create emptiness, not a fearful emptiness, but a friendly emptiness where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free.”

We can only create a friendly, free space around us when we have a friendly free space inside. When fearful, most of us become defensive and/or aggressive. There is no space in or around us to open up to others and invite them into a friendly environment.

What are the ways you could or already do create a “friendly emptiness” inside you and in conversations or meetings at home, at work or in your communities?

2 thoughts on “Creating A “Friendly Emptiness””

  1. I so appreciate a tone of optimism and inclusivity in this antagonistic and divided conversation we find ourselves in.

  2. Sharing this. I love Nouwen and his beliefs about hospitality. This is so timely in terms of what we are facing now.

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