How you ever realized you were not listening to the person that was talking to you when sudden silence penetrated your line of thought? You sit there thinking, am I supposed to answer or say something. If you are really honest, you will apologize and admit you didn’t hear the last last thing they said. True is, you were not listening; you were not present.
In this time of COVID and political and financial tension, we need to be present with the people around us. “We’re in this together” should be more than an empty slogan. As we approach the holidays, gift giving adds to the tension. Yet, one of the best gifts we can give is our presence. One more bow-tied box of trinkets mean nothing to the person who feels alone. Nor can we take for granted that we will have another chance to convey our love and affection when things are “back to normal” (whatever that is). Presence is a “gift that keeps on giving.” When we are truly available, truly present with the people we love and care about loneliness peels away.
Living without touch (physical contact) has been one of the most difficult things for me. I love hugs and holding hands and gentle touch. I miss hugging my adult sons when they stop by to check on us. I miss hugging my teenage grandchildren and passing quick tags of affection when they walk by. I miss placing my hand on top of my friends’ hands to let them know I understand and I care. It’s very hard to tell my young students we can not touch because of social distancing. (An elbow bump is not the same. There is no intimacy.) These gestures of affection have been the signs of presence for me; these were the signs of bonding, caring, and empathy. Yet, they are no longer viable due to the potential spread of COVID. However, this doesn’t mean that these things are lost. We can still demonstrate presence. We can still find opportunities to show that we care and we are together in this fight for social and emotional bonding. Eye contact, active listening, and sharing physical experiences such as a walk in the park are the some of the ways we can demonstrate presence.
Looking someone in the eye can communicate more than you think. It’s so wonder philosophers consider our eyes “the window of the soul.” My youngest granddaughter taught me this. One day she asked me if I was mad about something. I answered, “No, of course not! Why would you think that?” She said, “Your eyes and your eyebrows look mad.” Even when I have on a mask I am able to communicate a smile to my students. Without a word, I can communicate sadness, love, or longing to my family members. My eyes can tell you: I hear you, I’m with you, I understand, I need you, I’m here for you.
Active listening is so important (even before COVID). It helps us to truly know that we are understanding what is being communicated. When you respond to what the speaker says instead of just adding your own points you are not only demonstrating presence, you are demonstrating that what the speaker has to say is important to you. Language can be very complicated. Different words can mean different things to different people, especially when you add slang and colloquialisms. Repeating or paraphrasing what someone says can clarify the meaning of what they are saying. I recently learned when my young co-worker says, “I was feeling some kind of way!” that she means she was disturbed by a situation or conversation. During this holiday season, we may all be “feeling some kind of way” – a way that we need to communicate. We all want someone to feel or at least empathize with what we are feeling.
Recently, I shared a short story with a friend over the phone. Writing is typically the way I share experiences with others. However, there is something to be said for physical and emotional experiences that are shared in other ways. My godson and I have walked together for miles, not only sharing conversation, but sharing the environment and atmosphere of where we walk such as: cemeteries, wooded paths, and urban and suburban neighborhoods. We share our interest in the history of our surroundings, as well as the nature of it. These shared experiences are unique to our relationship and cause us to be present with each other in a way that others may not fit or understand.
Finding a way to share experiences during these strange and precarious days is critical if we really want to feel like someone is in this with us. Facetime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. offer one kind of experience, but meeting in an open air, social distancing, “I’m with you” way, is a totally different experience. It adds a sense of normalcy. It adds a sense of physical presence. My seventy nine year old girlfriend meets with two of her friends in an open-air market once each week. Then they go to the park across the street, sit in the large gazebo and chat. This is a joy for all of them as they live alone and have no nearby family. Each week, they have something to look forward to – being present with one another. (Now that parts of California are on lockdown, they may not get to meet for some time. I hope they will become phone buddies.)
Presence is an essential present for this holiday season. Isolation is one of the primary causes of depression and hopelessness. Loneliness (even before COVID) is one reason people feel disconnected and misunderstood. This past week, a dear friend’s nephew tried to commit suicide. On that particular day he called his parents and told them he loved them. He called an aunt and told her he was sorry to disappoint her he was not going to be a doctor like her. (He looked up to her and always said he would be just like her.) I don’t presume to know what they thought or how they responded to his calls, but I do wonder if anyone had been present when he was trying to communicate prior to this day. Luckily, his aunt picked up on the warning signs and was able to call the paramedics in time.
I want to give some material gifts this year, but more than anything I want to be really present when people (family, friends, neighbors, and even some strangers) reach out to me. I want to be mindful of what is happening and what is being said. I don’t want to miss opportunities to grow and savor relationships. I want to give the gift of presence as one of the best presents that I can give. How about you? Will you give the gift of presence this holiday season. Presence can be one of the best presents you have to offer.
Be Present! Be safe! Stay sane! Reach out! Happy Holidays!