Negative Space

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni


Recently I turned fifty. It’s a milestone birthday, right? It’s meant to mean something. Prior to this event I was doing a fair amount of reflection on what I wanted it to mean for me to reach half a century. In so many ways it’s just an arbitrary number that has little significance. It’s only the story you associate with the age of fifty that makes you feel something about your identity. Regardless of the number, I am the thing I choose to believe I am.

I was reading what other people said about turning fifty and I came across a description of ageing as being similar to moving through a house with many rooms. The older you get the more rooms there are that are shut away from you – rooms you will never need to go back into; rooms you can never go back into. I found it interesting that ageing was often described as what was no longer available to us – what was lost or diminishing. Whilst I can see that point of view, I experience something quite different too.

This got me thinking about how we look at situations and how we can lock into a view that our life  is either positive or negative. The endless duel of opposites. It’s either this or that, right or wrong; happy or sad; good or bad. I think our minds must default to this binary view of life. We are something and yet we are also not something. The perspective we take on this can make all the difference.

In coaching I am often listening out for what is not being said along with what is being said. It’s like when you are creating or looking at art – there’s positive and negative space and both give form to the image. The space around and between the subject can form an equally interesting and artistically relevant shape. So much so that the negative space can become the real subject of an image. The negative space has as much relevance as the positive and together they cause the impressiveness of the whole form.

The information and descriptions that can matter most about us are sometimes the very ones we ignore. The opposite of what we sometimes focus upon is where the gold lies. Understanding ourselves and life can be the equivalent of looking at an x-ray. When recently I examined an x-ray of my lungs I noticed that my lungs,  filled with invisible air were this dark mass and yet my bones, these solid structures inside me, were luminous, ghostly, white forms. It was the reverse of what you imagine it should be.

Too often I notice that people spend an inordinate amount of time suffering under the burdens of what is not in their lives. Time after time in coaching sessions people present stories of what they wish they had said, what could have been done. They struggle with what others haven’t done for them, what was disregarded, and worse, devalued. These events they talk about resonate with a disharmony in their being – a conflict caused by what’s not being fulfilled. I believe unmet desires are possibly more important than those we fulfill.

I know this to be true for myself too. For so long I was overly concerned with my past and what it had ‘done’ to me. I showed up in the world self conscious of  what I wasn’t. What has become clearer to me the older I have become is that because of my life events – the losses and deprivations, and the things I chose not to be, didn’t know how to be, and could not follow, I have become something impressive. For far too long I busied myself looking at what wasn’t there so I had little time or energy to see what was there.

The truly great artists, like Michelangelo, know how to use both positive and negative space. To find the angel in the marble, Michelangelo had to chip away what wasn’t angelic. But the parts that were removed were equally important in allowing the form of the angel to emerge. So when I am coaching people, I am working with them to see the entire form – what is there, what has been removed from what was there and what impressive form is seeking to be noticed within the negative space as well as the positive space. You can’t fully value the angel Michelangelo carved unless you recognise what is also not part of the angel.

As we age we get to re-notice the way we see the world and ourselves in it – we re-see what and who we are. Age opens us up to a more intricate view of ourselves. I’m still chipping away at the marble block of self- shaping my angelic form, but I cannot transform into an angel without noticing the things that are there and those that are not there.  Age has moved me further away from myself so I can fully appreciate the artist that has created my form.

We are all more impressive than we think we are because of everything we are and everything we are not.

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  • Shona
    May 15, 2016 at 4:29 pm

    I like what you’ve done there. Used the term negative space to be the meaning for something positive – well done,

    • Cal McDonnell
      May 15, 2016 at 5:01 pm

      Thank you – it got a bit complex and confusing in the writing of it so I’m glad I didn’t confuse you.

  • Rebecca
    May 15, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    Beautiful article Cal, you often seem to write an article that feels so timely for me. Always great to be able to read your perspective and use it to challenge my thinking.

    • Cal McDonnell
      May 15, 2016 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you

  • Brendan
    May 16, 2016 at 5:31 pm

    I really like the analogy of a house with rooms and feel it’s Worth considering the rooms in the house that may be un-known or un-explored yet from a possibility perspective. It also go me thinking about how the lights might have gone out in some of the rooms and the potential value of turning the light back on and rediscovering some things you may have forgotten about over time. Thanks for getting my thoughts flowing and the reflective gems it brought for me!

    • Cal McDonnell
      May 17, 2016 at 6:25 am

      Its a great analogy I agree.


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