Let’s talk about space. I don’t mean planets and stars and galaxies, because unfortunately I know very little about that. What I really mean is physical space, the air between two people, the gap that separates a near-miss and a collision. The space an individual lives in, moves in, breathes in. Everybody needs space. Everybody deserves space. But I, for one, have never felt comfortable taking it.
Think about the last time you were walking down the street. Now ask yourself, “why was I walking down the street when there’s a perfectly good sidewalk?”
Sorry, lame joke.
Anyway, think about the last time you were walking anywhere and you came across somebody walking towards you. Did you move to accommodate them? Or did they move to accommodate you? Or did you both move, like polarized magnets, out of each other’s way, both afraid to intrude upon the space of the other? The amount of space a person chooses to take up is a very telling thing.
I have always been the one to move. In crowds or large gatherings, I move with my arms leaning in on myself, my body curving around the obstacles. When I walk down the sidewalk, I move to leave extra room for anyone I deem to be deserving of more space than me, which is pretty much everyone.
I never realized that this was a thing I did until I spoke to a coworker of mine named Jenn, who had a chronic knee issue and couldn’t walk for very long periods at a time. We were sitting in the break room, discussing feminism (which is another way you can take this topic, regarding men tending to take up more space than women, but that’s a whole other thing), when she sat up a little straighter and locked eyes with me.
“How much space do you take up?” She asked, her gaze fixated and eager. I was completely taken aback, almost insulted. But before I could read into it too far, she enthusiastically continued.
“I mean, when you go somewhere or enter a room, do you take up a lot of space, or do you leave the space for others?”
I thought about it for a moment.
“I don’t know, I think I leave space.” It always seemed like the polite thing to do, and the Canadian in me made it a habit. The concept of there being another way was completely outrageous.
“Well, having an invisible illness, I can’t move out of people’s way as easily, and I have found that when I stand my ground and take up the space I need, people move out of the way for me. It’s really quite fascinating.”
I looked at Jenn as though she had just spoken in tongues and then returned to normal, without any acknowledgement of the moment. While I understood what she was saying, I didn’t truly understand what it meant.
It wasn’t until later, as I drove home from work, that I fully realized the weight of her words. What would happen if everyone took the space they needed, not just the space they wanted? What if I entered a room without cowering, without trying to hold myself together in as compact a formation as possible?
A week later, as I drove to work through downtown, I saw a woman who was wearing no shoes, torn pants, and a baggy shirt, her dusty hair cropped haphazardly short. She stumbled about on the sidewalk, clearly under the influence of something, and on to the curb beside the intersection. I slammed on my breaks, even though she was much farther down the road, and my heart raced as she stepped out onto the busy street and began to walk with a confidence I would never have guessed she possessed. I wanted to scream at her to move, to go back to the curb, but to my amazement, she continued walking. As she walked, cars swerved around her, like a river encircling a rock without ever fully engulfing it. She made it to the other side of the road safely, and traffic proceeded as normal.
I was absolutely stunned. How was it that someone could disrupt the flow of their environment simply by claiming space? It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Which leads me to my point. Now I’m not suggesting that you should go out and step into oncoming traffic just to see what happens. What I am trying to get at is the idea that people deserve a space in the world around them. They deserve existence, acknowledgement of their place in life.
Taking up space is more than just a matter of moving over just slightly less when walking down the sidewalk, or straightening your shoulders when entering a room. It isn’t about losing politeness and bowling people over if they are in your way. It is about acknowledging that you matter, that you deserve to take up room and be wherever you are.
I never realized just how little I felt I deserved until I recognized my adversity to occupying space. It’s a work in progress, but each day I try to take the space I need to get by. I remember that woman, the way the cars drove around her, like a drop of oil in water. Though she may have looked like nothing to the rest of society, she existed, and her existence made an impact.
Going forward, I challenge you to pay attention to the space you occupy and what it really means. When you move over on the sidewalk, do it because you acknowledge that others deserve space too, not that you deserve less.
And for goodness sake, stay off of the street.