A number of years ago, I had the honor of walking closely with one of my best friends during the final months of her marriage. It was heartbreaking to watch her dreams for their life together be blown apart by his verbal and physical abuse, yet it was a privilege to witness her courage, resilience and determination.
During the months before they split for good, many people in her life pleaded with her to leave him. They were understandably horrified by the ways he treated her, yet she was not quite done fighting for her marriage and started to resent the voices pushing her to make a decision before she was ready. Although my nature is generally to try to fix problems and offer advice as well, in this case I sensed advice was not what she needed from me. Instead, in a moment of uncharacteristic clarity and self-control, I chose to simply bear witness and be with her. I (mostly) avoided giving advice or offering opinions, in spite of what seemed the obvious solution.
I simply listened.
I told her I believed in her and knew she would ultimately make the best decision for her life. I told her she was brave and I loved her. I told her she was welcome in my home whenever she needed a safe place to be.
I held space for her to listen to God and her best self- in her own time and at her own pace.
Blogger and coach Heather Plett defines holding space in this way:
Holding space means we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
I tell the story above as an example of holding space to which I aspire. Even in a situation where I had some clarity about what was needed, I held space for my friend sloppily and imperfectly. She was hurting and I wanted to make her better. In hundreds of other circumstances, I have wanted to fix my loved one in pain and struggled against the urge to move them in the direction I believed would make things better- a direction where they weren’t yet ready to go or a path different than the one which ultimately proved right for them. When we rush the process and assume we know what is best for our friend or family member, we unwittingly tell them not to trust their own wisdom, intuition and connection to God and we run the risk of making them feel incompetent. For those of us who are parents, finding this balance between offering guidance and holding space with our children as they get older is particularly challenging and one I am personally still trying to figure out.
The concept of holding space has been on my mind recently because I have recently discovered one person in my life with whom I have a particularly difficult time offering this gift.
While I understand the beauty and value of holding space for my loved ones, even when I am not very good at it, I find I often push myself to resolution and solutions too soon. Transformation, growth, waiting, listening and healing feel like standing still and I get restless. I want to DO something, take action, or make a change. Judgement and control take hold and I force the process when wisdom might look more like being still and listening.
In this recent season of transition, I am remembering growth and transformation take time and the journey is just as important as the destination. The ways I hold space for myself look remarkably like the ways I hold space for a loved one:
- Showing up
- Being curious
- Being patient and gentle
- Withholding judgment
- Focusing on process, not outcomes
- Trusting God to be present and in control
- Believe in miracles
Holding space is a gift we all can give. To others, to ourself, perhaps even to our broken world.
As I finish this post today, my heart is heavy with sadness over the recent violence in our country and the atmosphere of fear. As I think about the continued evidence of systemic racism and our seeming inability to stem this tide of hate and anger, I am wondering what it means to “hold space” as a larger society, as white people along side our black brothers and sisters, as followers of Jesus? I’m certain prayer is part of it, but can’t be all of it. How do we really listen in a way that matters? How do we hold space for healing?