Skip to content

Quiet Place, Quiet Space: Standing in the Tragic Gap


Parker Palmer uses the phrase “standing in the tragic gap” to describe the tension one feels between what is and what could be. The tragic gap is the uncomfortable spot where one sidesteps quick decisions, hasty analysis, and automatic labeling. When standing in the tragic gap, one can simply be. Breathe quietly. Take time. Stay away from swift labeling of ideas into realistic or idealistic categories that ignore the useful spectrum of perspectives between them. This is the tragic gap.

Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, taught that between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is power to choose one’s response. In this response lies growth and freedom. For children, time-outs are spaces that allow imagination of consequences and options. Wise parents teach a child to pause to regain self-mastery for her own good.

Similarly, meditation provides a space for a different sort of reset, a gap from which understanding can surface. Stifling a knee-jerk reaction to disgust or dissonance, one can make room for reflection. Reflection punctures self-righteous veneers to a budding growth where one does not wield the sword of a binary operator who divides the world into good guys and bad guys, insiders and outsiders, winning team and losing team. Meditation creates an opening through which God’s kingdom can become real—that slit can grow when one removes oneself from time-eroding roles like Twitter Police Officer and Blame Assignment Chief. Standing in the tragic gap, a person avoids quick judgment, allowing room for an openhearted search for truth. For Christians, meditation is a time to reflect on the life of Christ as a path to wisdom.

Yet, contemplation of Jesus’ life does not provide immediate tranquility and can be unsettling as it reshuffles instinctual categories. Considering the crucifixion peels away underlying imitative patterns that typically guide one’s thought processes. This is the mimicry where one competes with others for acquiring stuff or joins pile-on parties to call out certain problematic groups. Thinking about Jesus occupies the mind in a different way, providing an exit from pathways of reflexive consumerism and scapegoating. When a person gets the mind of Christ, she will not blend easily with the crowd.

Far from promising peace on earth and presenting Christianity as a combination of welfare state and tourist paradise, the Gospels present the Christian future as full of division and strife. Far from announcing a peaceful world, Christ says that he brings a sword. All that he claims is that the truth of victims is out and that victimage patterns, systems of scapegoating will not provide the stable form of culture that they have had in the past.” p. 209 Girard, Rene, 1996, The Girard Reader, Crossroad Publishing, NY

Quiet times allow a person space to awaken to overarching group dynamics, and step away from scapegoating in honor of Jesus Christ who was crucified. Rather than relegating Jesus to a mere Chief Administrator of Afterlife, meditation helps open the mind to Christ and His leading now. Nearby social systems may seem to rupture, but a person can begin a long-term strategy of peace seeking. Drive somewhere in silence. Listen to wordless music. Gaze at a budding tree. Sit alone on a city park bench. Allow boredom. Consider Jesus’ sayings. Cultivate an open mind. Acknowledge the things one’s opponent is doing right. Spending time in nature creates space to exit the societal mimicry of hatred of common enemy and return to the original imitative purpose of being an image bearer of Creator God.

“‘God is love’ is written upon every opening bud, upon every spire of springing grass. The lovely birds making the air vocal with their happy songs, the delicately tinted flowers in their perfection perfuming the air, the lofty trees of the forest with their rich foliage of living green — all testify to the tender, fatherly care of our God and to His desire to make His children happy.” p.10 White, Ellen, 1956 edition, Steps to Christ

Meditation provides the space to acknowledge that one may be in a situation that she cannot fix, control, or understand. Sometimes one can only live in the moment as a child of God. At other times, quiet moments soothe a person who is frantically ruminating between options, creating space to consider a different sort of solution, a third way. Here is one example of moving to a third way:

Parents often experience a tension between their hopes for a child and what is happening in that child’s life. When they fail to hold the tension between those poles, they are tugged one way or the other, either clinging to an idealized fantasy of who ‘their baby’ is or rejecting this ‘thorn in their side’ with bitter cynicism. Both ways of responding reflect a fractured heart, and both are death dealing for parent and child alike.

But many parents will testify that when they hold that tension in a way that opens their hearts, they serve their children well — and more: they themselves become adults who are more open, more knowing, and more compassionate. The child who grows up in the force field that lies between the paradoxical poles of hopeful vision and hard reality has a chance to thrive, and the parent who holds the paradox thrives along with the child.” Palmer, Palmer The Politics of the Brokenhearted p.234

Commitment to seeking quiet times will allow one to anchor to a true vocation, remembering why God created humanity. Reflection on God’s character forces one to release the ways of retaliation, self-preservation, acquisition, and oppressive religion, as these easy paths do not lead to paradise and serve no purpose to help humanity bear the image of God. Contemplation of the cross and its axis of love expressed by forgiveness gives a lodestar in a post-truth society where the father of lies is having a field day.

In His image, we are to reflect His true character. Commitment to being an image bearer for God creates a unique journey for each person. This path in God’s story need not be rigid and can be a sort of musical improve, featuring adventure, love, grace, and a mandate to trust God.

Poet Clarissa Pinkola-Estes suggests posting this as a guideline for life:

“When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But . . . that is not what great ships are built for.”

Constructing a strong character requires quiet time where one is like a ship moored in harbor. Meditation assists one to move toward authentic purpose in a disenchanted world created by modernity.

Reserving time in the tragic gap helps a person move to a deep transformation toward integrated living. In this way, one will be ready when it is time to leave the port.


Notes and References:
Girard, Rene, 1996, The Girard Reader, Crossroad Publishing, NY
White, Ellen, 1956 edition, Steps to Christ


Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.

Image Credit: / Eva Schuster


If you respond to this article, please:

Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.