Paying Attention
Bill McDonald’s Website Newsletter
July 2018 - Volume 18, No. 7
Subscribe to this blog

The Space In-Between

Forty some years ago I had a book titled “Friendship” - an academic study of the subject.  However, I’ve long since lost track of it - probably lending it to someone who’s name I carelessly didn’t note in my “books lent” file.[1]

The three phases of friendship

My most important memory from it is where the author delineating three phases or stages of development of the subject: The first phase is populated with those friends whom we’ve kept or enjoyed over time - but as we ourselves grow and change, come to no longer share so much in common. They slip by the wayside, or disappear from view. Perhaps we can say, they no longer feed the soul.  

Let me jump to the third phase, which has to do with the new emerging friendships that will show up, more in tune (or sync) with whom we’ve become, or match our ongoing maturity and/or life purpose.

But it’s the second phase the author posited that caught my attention those many years ago. It’s that ‘space in-between’ when our old friends have receded and new ones haven’t yet emerged. It’s often empty, lonely and frequently chaotic.  

The (in-between) Place of Emptiness and Chaos

Many of the people who come to work with me seem to have entered that place in-between where things that were, don’t seem to work anymore. And these days the chaos of our larger world only intensifies the turmoil.  

It’s understandable why it’s tempting to just label and treat it as a time/place within the mental illness codes. Or it’s a ‘chemical imbalance’ which can then be chemically alleviated.  

But sometimes (surprisingly often in my experience) it’s also a place through which one must travel in order to get to that third place of maturity and higher human purposefulness.  

That ‘Empty Middle’ Place

The reader may have noticed within my writing of these past months, an emerging sense of “middle”  - especially of an “empty middle”, that has lost it’s ability to hold things together. I find this is a central feature of our time.  

I have seen this in current mental health language, where “bi-polar” can refer to a split in moods with little or nothing to hold them together within a person. I see it in the lack or fracturing of civil discourse, where people have nothing left upon which to build a relationship. It so easy (and now popular) to project all our faults onto those most vulnerable around us. Religions are used to divide. Economics is used to impoverish. Children are torn from their roots. Permission from the top is blithely given to hate and abuse each other.  

We’re living in a time of upside-down

Things that are supposed to work, no longer work. A single example:  

I find it interesting that while our government encourages us to see refugees and asylum seekers at our borders as criminal, many people central to our government are simultaneously becoming more and more criminal themselves. It’s as if at least our Executive Branch (especially the White House) is collapsing under it’s own duplicity. Will there ever be a reckoning? In the meantime there are a lot of neighbor folks we need to take care of. 

I’ll sometimes refer to stories where a ‘wicked witch’ casts a spell making a person (a prince or princess, or couple, or a whole people) into frogs. And once someone becomes a frog, all they can do is to act froggy. (When I share this with a couple, they’ll generally laugh with the recognition.) It’s impossible to change back from one’s place when locked inside such a spell. It takes the wisdom of an outsider to break the spell, someone who has a broader vision than the spell-caster - and the ability (and perhaps the) courage to speak it. And often it’s some old story that can teach me better how to free these prisoners. 

Wisdom and Knowledge

Once someone taught me the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is the explanation of things. Wisdom teaches us how to use knowledge for the sake of others and for healing. 

Years ago, one of my trainers spoke of knowing a man who was a paranoid schizophrenic housed in the back ward of a California psychiatric hospital. The man could wax eloquently and accurately all about his paranoid schizophrenia - but he was still a paranoid schizophrenic. He was full of knowledge, but it could do him no good. He was still locked up, ‘spelled’ and suffering.

Much of our modern knowing of things, is like the knowledge we can gain such as from reading books, or perhaps from a a college degree. True wisdom is the knowledge of how to use it wisely and with care - such as for the benefit and healing of “all the People.”[2]  Wisdom often emerges later in life, where it’s been earned or sometimes wrestled out of our experiences in the empty middle spaces.

To gain knowledge, we often have to learn. To gain wisdom we often have to suffer.

A distinct feature of good medicine is to relieve suffering, as is true also of the mental health professions.

And yet often the path of healing, the path to health (the third phase) can inherently involve at least some suffering. 

A distinct feature of a good life, can involve the willingness to suffer, or sacrifice - either for the sake of our own maturing, and/or for the sake of others.

And so sometimes when someone approaches me from with the suffering of that ‘space in-between’ I’ll suggest (usually gently) “it looks like we’ve got a lot of work to do here.”  

The Dark Side of Suffering

We live in an especially punitive society and time. One statistic alone; we have the world’s greatest percentage of our population in prisons.[3]  We have a “lock em up” president and Attorney General.  If you’re brown or black or poor or ill (or whatever the currently powerful determine), the chances are you’ll suffer for it.  The Law of Projection dictates that whatever someone doesn’t like within themselves, it will be projected (often unconsciously) onto someone more vulnerable.  

The Old Ones would give us stories

I come from a story-telling background. And some of my own best allies for the work and experience of the empty-middle spaces of life come from old stories I’ve learned. Here’s a current favorite of mine:  (You’ll see why.)

“Mirror mirror”

Consider the old teaching story of Snow White. Then reverse some of the genders and take a look around.

There was a beautiful queen, who’s primary passion was the worship of her own (mirror) image. She had a stepdaughter (the true mother had died at her birth), who as she grew became even more beautiful than the queen. The (‘wicked’) stepmother/queen became impulse bound to destroy the girl. But she could not, as hard as she tried, until through many ordeals and sufferings, the child came to her own rightful place as a princess. At the royal wedding, the wicked queen could not resist attending, and upon her arrival (I quote here the final three sentences from the ‘original’):[4]

         “And when she went in she recognized Snow White; and she stood still with rage and fear, and could not stir. But iron slippers had already been put upon the fire, and they were brought in with tongs, and set before her. Then she was forced to put on the red-hot shoes, and dance until she dropped down dead.”

Hide that in a children’s book, soften it up a bit, and the cultural censors will let it sneak by. It can be dangerous material. 

After the “Space in-between” - The Third Phase

The original three phases, consists of 1) the place that was, where things often worked; 2) the place where things don’t work anymore, where much is turned upside down, where chaos and dissolution seem to reign; and finally 3) a new place where things resolve into a new order of functionality and humanity. As in the story of Snow White, it resolves itself into a place where we were somehow always meant to be - in her case a true princess.  

Do we always get there? No. It may be just a hope.

Do we deserve it? Strangely, the answer is a mysterious Yes (in spite of anything and everything).

It’s the other side of the troublesome and sometimes suffering Middle.

Many will call it “Home.”

Humble yourself to it.

And Life will come to you. (The old stories promise it.)

Pay attention!



[1] Nor do I recall the author.  In a Google search, it seems all books about ‘friendship’ are either for children or for women.  (That in itself is interesting.)  However, this book was not so specified, and itself noted the rarity of it’s broader subject.

[2] A phrase I learned from Native American friends, which includes more than just humans, but also the larger created world.

[3] In October 2013, the incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world, at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world's population, it houses around 22 percent of the world's prisoners.   Wikipedia

[4] “The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales” Pantheon Books, New York. (1944)  p258

Notwithstanding the niced-up revision of Mr. Disney.

Comments (1)

  • Was the book your looking for called....

    Wow! I wish I could find that book for you!
    Was it....
    Friendship: Being Ourselves With Others
    by Graham Little

    P.S. another fab article!!!

    — Linda, 4/1/2022

Add a Comment

will be kept private

Bill McDonald
Fenton, Michigan

FREE Monthly Newsletter

Whether you are a client or not, you can always benefit from some free monthly words of wisdom:
Your e-mail address: