The week between Christmas and New Year can feel like the doldrums. In our hyper-energised lives, a whole week with nothing going on can feel intolerable – boring, claustrophobic, pointless. But it's actually the perfect time to learn to appreciate the space in between: the gap between stimulus and action, between inspiration and creation, the time in which we can consider what has passed and make decisions about what comes next.
The space can be tiny. The momentary WTF between receiving an unwelcome text and shooting off a zinging reply. Or it can be huge. When I was 10 years old, my parents took me to see the opera Orpheus In The Underworld at the English National Orchestra, which featured a scene in which Greek gods rode coffins down a slide to Hades. Twenty years later, that image still in my mind, I wrote my first novel, Gods Behaving Badly.
The space in between is not as celebrated as inspiration or as glamorous as creation. At its best, it's daydreaming, imagination, hope. At its worst, it's doubt, confusion, the feeling of being utterly lost. It's digestion. Often, it's indigestion. It feels a lot like doing nothing, but it's crucial for getting anything done. We all know the expression “look before you leap” – the space in between is where you stand while you're doing the looking.
Modern life makes it very hard to hold on to the space in between. The world today is full of content – not content as in satisfaction, but as in stuff. We are stuffing ourselves with stuff, not just materially but also mentally. With a smartphone and some earbuds, you don't ever need to be alone with your thoughts, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep. Read while you commute, watch Netflix while you eat, put Sonos in your bathroom and listen to podcasts while you shower. Lately, whenever I'm out on my bike, I always end up with someone ahead of me, riding slowly, weaving back and forth. They're texting while they cycle. Why waste precious minutes looking at the boring old road?
We're afraid of the feelings that await us when we give ourselves that space: loneliness, uncertainty, the fear that we've taken a wrong turn. We'd rather walk blindly ahead
Our urge to mentally gorge is understandable. We are human beings with huge, voracious minds, hungry for insight and for entertainment, and there is so much out there to consume. But in trying not to miss out on anything, in saturating our lives trying to keep up with it all, what are we losing sight of?
We've forgotten how to be still. We've forgotten how to be silent. We've forgotten how to be bored; not the boredom of Stranger Things series two episode seven, but the boredom of staring into the emptiness and not immediately reaching out for something to distract us. We're afraid of the feelings that await us when we give ourselves that space: loneliness, uncertainty, the fear that we've taken a wrong turn. We'd rather walk blindly ahead than risk finding out we don't yet know where to go. But the risk of refusing to allow ourselves the space in between is that we never find out what's on the other side of it. We're always on the go, but we never get anywhere.
I'm guilty of this myself (although I don't text while cycling, as I value being alive). Sometimes I hate the space in between. The anxious days when my work is going nowhere, the empty nights when everyone has plans other than me, the vertigo of looking into my future and not being certain of when the next good thing is going to come along. When I experience that fear, the easiest thing in the world is for me to pick up my phone and look for something to take my mind away from it. But for me, at least, there's a direct consequence. When I stuff my life with content, I can't write. I fill myself so full with other people's ideas that I have no ideas of my own. Eventually, I can't hear anything at all – it's just noise. And any sound that I make is just screaming into it. Only in sitting alone in that uncomfortable space do I bring about the conditions that I need in order to start creating again. The uncertainty is where the questions are. Without questions, I have no answers. I've learnt to value the space in between, to protect it fiercely. It's utterly necessary for me to live my life.
So, why not use the quiet time between Christmas and New Year to practise the lost art of doing nothing? Switch off your phone, take off your headphones, stop scrolling, watching, clicking, sharing. Listen to the sound of your own thoughts. Let yourself reflect over the year that's behind you and the year to come, what you've achieved, where you've fallen short, where you want to go next. And then start 2018 with a new commitment to leaving more spaces in between in your life.
This week, The Pool contributors are writing about The In-Between, that period between Christmas and New Year – a time of family and reflection, a time when we think about the past and look to the future