The Great Empty

Dr. Lisa Withrow is a former professor of leadership and currently is a life and leadership coach and conflict management consultant, who has published several works on the nature of liminality.

Photography has long been my solace and my escape from everyday stresses and expectations. I have fussed with apertures and shutter speeds, filters and special effects.  Ultimately though, it is my interaction with the natural world itself that co-creates the picture, with technicalities only enhancing (or sometimes obscuring) what is already present.

Recently, I was looking through a New York Times photo essay titled “The Great Empty,” shot in March 2020, the first month of global shutdowns due to the coronavirus. The photos, situated in the world’s great cities, show empty streets and isolated people, silhouetted in high-rise apartment windows. The absence of crowds and traffic in these photos is jarring. And hauntingly beautiful. Some cities remain in isolation at this writing, but most are opening up to human movement for the sake of resuming some sense of normalcy in the workplace and in social life.  We are still in the liminality of pandemic, feeling our way globally into the emerging future. Experiments focusing on the flow of life and work continue with a step forward, then back, then a step in another direction, as science rushes to keep up with a virus that morphs and spreads indiscriminately.

The Great Empty refers to the movement, or lack thereof, of human beings. Yet, I have been encouraged with reports over the last few months that the slowing of human pace has created space for other creatures to find more space – A Great Fullness.  Whales increased communications with each other because cruise ships were not interrupting signals.  Turtles showed up on beaches where they had diminished in numbers significantly. Bird migrations were more cohesive.  For a moment, the planet breathed again – and so did human beings.   Photography essays showing signs of the natural world rebounding in a few short months brought me a moment of hope, countering my growing cumulative despair after decades of evidence pointing to human culpability for the planet’s demise. I don’t know if my hope will last; much depends on all of our choices during this liminal time.

Questions arise now about whether we can find our way to live well and make space in the world for the rest of creation. Economic anxieties and racial unrest are at the fore of human consciousness, rightly so, yet the plight of the natural world will likely move to the background once again rather than take its place as an integral connection to inequity and resources.  Until industry and mega-corporations make a decision that the natural ecosystems are essential for thriving, there is small likelihood that we will find a sustainable co-life with the world’s natural resources and non-human creatures.

So this forced, virus-based liminality necessitates our asking the essential question that Margaret Wheatley, a leadership entrepreneur and writer, poses: “Who do we choose to be?”  Notice that the subject is plural.  We are in liminal space together, and creating hope for a sustainable future is a shared decision, which is a complex prospect. Choices in the present are tempered with both grief and hope – grief for loss of the past and letting go of what we do not need, and hope for the emerging future. Moving through these states of being is essential for good choices.

The Great Empty gives us a picture toward which we might strive: breathable air, slower pace, space for creation to renew, working from home rather than clogging the streets and skies, focus on beauty.  The brilliance of collective human focus can take this picture and make something sustainable of it – if we choose well.  We pay attention to our shutter speeds (pace), our apertures (what we take in), filters (what matters and what doesn’t), and our special effects (how we bring beauty into the world and how we receive what is given to us). The possibility is endless.  Who do we choose to be?