No, The Room Should Not Feel Empty When You’re In It

The_Butler_poster“THE ROOM SHOULD FEEL EMPTY WHEN YOU’RE IN IT,” said Vanessa Redgrave’s character to the young African American boy in the movie, “The Butler.” Redgrave was the mistress of the home and was training the young boy to become her house servant, and to excel in the “art” of invisible service.

Those words…the room should feel empty when you’re in it …tore like a knife through my heart. So much so that I took out my pen in the middle of the movie and scratched out those words in the dark.

To me, that one sentence summed up what the Civil Rights movement was really all about. Being seen.

This is not a movie review but I could write one with great passion. I recently wrote a post in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 50th anniversary of his I Have A Dream speech. I think it aligns perfectly with my sentiments about the movie and about that period in history:

It wasn’t our finest moment

and though we’ve come far on the moral arc,

we have far, far to go.

Those words….the room should feel empty when you’re in it, keep coming back to mind. Being invisible, unseen, can extend beyond racial discrimination and boundaries. It can spill over into so many areas of life.

As humans, I believe we have a need to be seen. In the workplace. At home. In society. Yet, being seen, being visible, is not the same as seeking validation or approval. That can only come from within.

Being seen is about basic human connection and about our contribution to the whole. It’s about knowing that we’re all in “this” together and that we all matter.  When people are “not seen” they are in a sense, actually being de-humanized. And to say to another human being …”the room should feel empty when you’re in it,” is to me, the height of degradation and de-humanization.

Visibility, in the form of approval, is a completely different matter. When we start chasing validation from outside sources, bosses, lovers, critics, (ex, how many comments, likes I get on my blog), we inevitably end up in a sinkhole we can’t climb out of it. (I know this one.)

One day, depending upon your approval level,  you feel good. The next day, without positive feedback, your self-esteem plummets like the Dow and you’re left emotionally bankrupt. That’s because you’re investing your energy, your stock, in circumstances and people outside of yourself to be seen.

True visibility, true power, comes from standing in one’s own light. In one’s truth.

In “The Butler,” Forest Whitaker, who goes from humble house servant to butler for eight American presidents, was the master of his own power. His quiet dignity helped to reflect back truth….to those who held “the power.”  And by standing in his own integrous light, he was able to be seen, to be visible….and to light the way for others. 

Ironically, he was the lighthouse that called in the wayward ship captains, and that helped to righten what had gone so terribly askew during that dark and stormy period in history. lighthouse small

In particular, we women must too remember our power comes from our own internal source. And from mastering our own integrity. By standing in our light, without approval, without permission, without apology, we can light the way for ourselves, and for others.

We can be the silent sirens that call the hearts home to safety, to love, to those higher places that reside within us all…and are easily recognizable, if not always by the human eye, the human heart.

If you’re interested in more thoughts on integrity, compassion and grace, particularly at midlife, read my book Tao Flashes.  Or visit me at or on twitter @taoflashes.

11 thoughts on “No, The Room Should Not Feel Empty When You’re In It

  1. I am trying to understand your premise. I have not yet seen the movie, but based on your description, she was training him to be ‘in service,’ a noble and honorable profession – she was not training him to be Black. Therefore, the instruction had nothing to do with his race and everything to do with doing his job well by being unobtrusive and not disruptive to the people he is there to serve. Why does this movie represent the civil rights movement to you?

    • D’Anne, thanks so much for writing and giving me an opportunity to explain. Without giving away too much of the movie, the young boy was brought in to be a house servant–a promotion of sorts–after something horriffic had happened. The horriffic thing was the result of being black and treated like property in the South in the late 1920s. (But yes, Vanessa Redgrave was training him for service, which inevitably led him to a better life. )I talk metaphorically about the room feeling empty when you’re in it and I do compare it to the Civil Rights movement because I believe black people were treated as invisible and worse during this time. Much of the movie spends its time during that period and viewers get to see the ferocity (no other word fits here) of the anger and fear against black people. People did not want to “see” them and they were treated in dehumanizing ways. As for the butler being “in service,” and that being a noble profession, I agree. His dignity allowed others, including presidents, to see him in a different light. And they were able to treat him as a human. I do believe serving unobtrusively is wonderful….as long as the people who are being served recognize the other with respect and humanity. The movie is inspirational and over time, as I said, the presidents saw the character in this light. If you see the movie, I’d love to hear more of your thoughts.

  2. I left feeling the exact same thing today as I left the movie house with my husband after seeing, “The Butler”, an extraordinary movie that has hit a nerve in both of us. You write so eloquently the feelings I have felt all day, and ones I suppose I have felt my whole life.

    We all need to feel visible, to feel a part of all that is, and to voice our opinions because we all matter. Now. Today. Always.

    Excellent post, Lisa.

    • Cathy,
      It was a beautiful movie, but hard to watch, wasn’t it? It took me a day to process what I was feeling. Writing always helps to bring clarity to me. Sometimes I’m not even sure what’s going to show up on the page until it does. Yes, we are birds of a feather, my dear.

  3. Excellent post, as usual Lisa The line from The Butler that really hit home for me was when he went back to visit the share-croppers cabins he was raised in, and compared his previous life to life in the German concentration camps. That was so true and so powerful for me! LLC

    • Yes Laura Lee, I remember that line as well. And it really stuck with me….how we were doing things around the world to help others, but were not walking the talk at home. (Of course, he said it more eloquently.) What a powerful movie.

  4. I still have not seen the movie, but do plan to. This post resonated within me for many reasons. Many of them are shared in my blog posts. After reading through your post a few times, this one phrase in particular struck the loudest chord: “And by standing in his own integrous light, he was able to be seen, to be visible….and to light the way for others.”
    That is kinda what we all should strive to emulate. I know that I do, and as you said, it is not always easy.
    Thank you for your post.

    • Oh wonderful, I’ll check out your blog Julie. And I agree with your thoughts on that quote –“And by standing in his own integrous light, he was able to be seen, to be visible….and to light the way for others.”
      It is something to strive for…even though I fall down from time to time.
      I’d love to hear back from you after you see the movie. It’s very powerful. And inspiring….on many levels.

  5. Pingback: How to Seek & Find | The Real Jule

  6. I loved the movie The Butler and I loved your take on it. There’s been times in my life when I have felt invisible and it was frustrating. But we do all have that inner light for all the world to see.

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