The “Empty Nest” Paradox

“So, are you two getting ready for the empty nest?”

My wife and I are hearing this question, in one form or another, quite often these days.  Our friends and family watch and wonder as the August date draws near for our soon-to-be-18-year-old twins to move out of the house and into their respective college freshman dorms – one in Philadelphia, the other in Boston – while we two stay behind here in New York.

They wonder how we will cope with the big change.  They watch our faces for telltale signs of distress.

And inevitably they ask their version of the question”.  Sometimes it’s an open-ended type of query, such as “How are you two feeling about this?”   Other times it’s more of a closed, assumption-laden kind of probe, along the lines of “So how upset are you two about them leaving?”

But no matter how the question is posed, our response tends to be somewhat ambivalent, or as I prefer to think of it, paradoxical:  “We are certainly not looking forward to the way we’re going to miss having them both here with us every day, and we are absolutely looking forward to some of the ways in which our lives will be different because they will not be here with us every day.”

I’d like to explore for a minute the implications of that one word in the above sentence that’s joining the two sides of the paradox – the word and.

Years ago, I would have used the word “but” where the word and” occurs in this sentence.  That would have been before I read the late Peter McWilliams’ wonderful book “Do It!” which he subtitled “Let’s Get Off Our Buts”.  He forever changed my understanding of this word by treating its three letters as an acronym for “Behold the Underlying Truth”.  He asserted that when we join two phrases with this connector, we are in fact negating the phrase that precedes it, and affirming the truth of that negation with the phrase that follows it.

Here is the relevant excerpt from his book ….

Let’s look at a typical sentence containing “but”.  I’d like to visit my sick grandmother, but it’s too cold outside.  The truth is that grandma is not getting a visit.  The lie is that I care so much about [her] that I really want to pay her a visit.

Since absorbing McWilliams’ lesson, I’ve been much more particular about when and how I use the word “but”.  Were I to employ it in my response to the empty nest query above, it would suggest that in fact my wife and I are not going to miss the kids all that much!  Or if the phrases were inverted and joined by “but”, that might imply that we’re going to miss them so much that we probably won’t enjoy any of the resulting changes in our own lives.

Now let’s get back to the word “and”.  By joining the two phrases with “and” instead of “but”, I’m able to affirm the paradoxical coexistence of the two seemingly opposite emotions that accompany our upcoming “empty nest” – sadness and happiness.

And of course, this conjunction of opposites can be confusing.  We tend to be uncomfortable with holding contradictory ideas or feelings.  We want to know, “Which is it?  Are you happy or are you sad?”  We like things to be black or white.  We don’t like it very much at all when they are black and white.

But in fact often they are – and notice that in this sentence, I’m using “but” not as a connector to hide the underlying truth, but as a reinforcer to emphasize the truth I’m trying to coax a bit out of its usual hiding place.

So, what does all of the above have to do with this blog’s focus – engaged mindfulness?

To the extent that its premise is valid – that the more mindfully self-aware we are, the more authentically and effectively we are able to engage with others in the world – then perhaps it is also a valid premise that the more aware we are of the paradoxes that we hold within ourselves and that everyone else is holding within themselves, the more able we will be to speak and to listen with compassion, comprehension, and conviction.

And, as good a place to start as any might be for all of us to “get off our buts” and allow a few more “ands” into our conversations.  What do you think?


About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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4 Responses to The “Empty Nest” Paradox

  1. Hello Tom

    Thanks for this great post. I was reminded of my own obsession for working with the concept of the pendulum which I wrote up at ‎

    If one puts ‘visiting sick grandmother’ on one side of the pendulum swing and ‘it’s too cold’ on the other what happens at the bottom of the swing puts one in mindfulness, it seems to me – a place where some new accommodation takes place… An ‘and’…



  2. Intriguing, Colin! The smooth, constant back-and-forth flow of a pendulum is a wonderful image to capture the idea that opposite thoughts and feelings coexist within us, and that our movement from one thought or feeling to its opposite is a perfectly natural flow. I’ll have to go back and re-read your post on the law of the pendulum now ….


  3. Hi Tom,
    Thank you for your intelligence question and probe into “and” and “but”. I recently took a beginning improv comedy class to feed my increasing fascination and interest in synergies between theater arts and leadership coaching. The distinction between “and” and “but” in improv centered around action and possibilities. At the risk of oversimplifying, here it is: “Buts” stop action and close possibilities, while “Ands” continue action and open possibilities.
    Take care,


    • Thanks for this informative comment, Sydney. I can hardly think of a more compelling arena to illuminate the limiting effect of “buts” and the expansive effect of “ands” than an improv stage. Your closing sentence really captures the essence of what my post is all about.
      All the best,


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