Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
August 2010 - Volume 10, No. 8
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The Small Space Between

I’ve always known I was one of my father’s most difficult subjects to photograph - even though I never asked him, and he never said it. During my adolescent years, he was a professional photographer, having a portrait studio in our Iowa home town. I spent much of my after-school and weekend job time working with him in the “studio.” It was good because I enjoyed being with him, and also because he was very good at his craft.

But then there were those special moments, when he was the photographer and I was the subject. Portrait time. He would pose me, there among all the studio paraphernalia, placing my torso, arms and hands, shoulders, my neck and head in the ‘lines’ that would constitute a well constructed photograph. My father always had an artist’s eye for these things.

Then he would suggest I smile. But at that moment my face would freeze. He saw and I knew, that a frozen smile is not a smile, it’s only the caricature of a smile. My only available option was to let go of the (frozen) smile, into a relaxed non-smile. This also was of no value for a good portrait.

His art was to catch that quarter second between the frozen smile and the relaxed non-smile. A keen observer of human nature, he somehow he knew that the real me existed in that small space between. He had a quick shutter finger, and worked again and again to catch that fleeing moment - because that’s where the ‘picture’ of the real me existed. When I saw the results, they were a good portrait of me. They always were. Back then I never thought much about it.

But many times through subsequent years I have pondered that the real me was so elusive that it took a master to catch it, especially because I was so ‘masterful’ at covering it up.

In my work with couples I find myself seeking the same elusive moment - when each can be real and fully present to the other. When you can catch it, it’s the real person there, yet it seems so elusive. A baby has it naturally, and so do many children - before the troubles of life begin to cover it up. And sometimes an older person has it, if we’re willing to pay attention. But for the rest of us, it hides in that small space between doing what we’re supposed to do and then let our feeling complexes run the show - complexes that are often fixations interjected from other times and places.

In my own life, how many times have I been surprised to find something valuable, whether I was looking for it or not, and the actual ‘finding’ takes place when I’m ‘accidentally’ tripped or pulled aside from the expressway of my fixed intentions.

We spend the first decades of our life learning to focus on a goal. That’s the apparent secret of success; and when we learn it well, we’ll be rewarded with good grades and diplomas. Then we spend the rest of our life unlearning that - if only for the purpose of saving your marriage (that’s a professional insight), or, as is said these days, to finally “get a life.”

It was Carl Jung who studied and caught this just a hundred years ago. He was actually instrumental in the development of the lie detector machine, where the subject’s body gave a brief catchable glimpse of truth telling. But people can learn to evade the machine. However, the face cannot be controlled to evade. Between the question and the answer, the face, even if for just a quick glimpse, has to tell the truth.

Often in my couples work, I teach them to capture that glimpse. For the man, it’s that quick space between his going inside to defend or justify himself, and then when his anger (usually covert) or other feeling complexes wants to bite back. I’ll often say to him “don’t think, just listen (to her).” For the woman, it’s that moment just after she tells herself it’s all her fault, and just before she retreats into the feeling complexes of sadness, guilt and anger (introverted or extroverted). But in most cases, just at the moment of the shift, the face tone, and sometimes even the words, tell the ‘real’ truth of what’s going on. And in most couples, that moment, when each is in their momentary and often vulnerable “real self,” is what can break through the impasse of the relationship. And frequently I’ll find that the woman has been waiting for it, and the man is dumbfounded!

Even in the Bible, the story of Moses, it’s told that he momentarily “turned aside” in order to catch what God had in mind for him - in the Book of Exodus story of the burning bush. And his larger story unfolds from that moment.

And so, dear reader, in your own day-to-day life, work to catch that small space between, or pay attention to what’s momentarily seen by the side of the road, then stop and pay a visit. That’s often where your real self has been hiding, and where “life” is found.

My photographer father taught it to me many years ago, now you try it.

Pay attention!

Comments (5)

  • It rings true. Thankyou! Yes, beneath all the attempts at trying to be something else lies a more simple and honest expression of ourselves. Riding the boat back from beaver I read your newsletter. I enjoyed the story about you and your dad. Hope you’re having a great summer. With care,Terri

    — Terri brownell, 8/1/2010
  • Nicely said! Life does seem to be lived in the “little things,” whether it be those in-between times you portray, or in the dailyness of a stranger’s hello, a dog’s enthusiastic greeting, a compliment, a beautiful sunset, and great line in a song.
    Thanks for your wise words!

    — Mickey, 8/2/2010
  • Well written

    While I don’t agree with all that’s written here, I have to concur that once I let go of my goals, life got much calmer, and I found a relationship that was right under my nose and I never saw it. I still am adapting to not having a five year plan, but I suspect that in five years I may be a better person for not having one. And, yes Bill, I know you told me so.

    — Daniel LeBoeuf, 8/2/2010
  • I very much enjoy your articles, Bill, this one especially. Thanks for sharing your insight.

    — Glenda Burns, 8/5/2010
  • Surprised

    I was surprised to learn that you also were not able to completely relax during those portrait poses. I of course thought it was only me and you would probably say that my feeling is a perfect example of female guilt and blaming herself. You would be right! But now, Brother, I know that it wasn’t my fault and you were just as guillty! Ha! We did grow up with a very patient and special Dad though.

    — Alice, 8/9/2010

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Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

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