On True Presence

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A friend and I were sharing words and food when his cell phone rang. He glanced at the caller ID and gestured that he had to take the call. Several minutes later, he came back. Still distracted by the call, he barely noticed me. Annoyed, I said, “Look, if you’re not going to be here, we might as well go.” While waiting for him to finish his call, I noticed a couple at the next table. They were together but not. Impervious, they gazed into their smart-phones in private amusement. That night, I was watching a movie on TV with someone at home. Within minutes, she started to play with her e-tablet. “How can you play games and watch a movie at the same time,” I asked. She demurred, “I’m multi-tasking.” People who study this stuff just may conclude that my friend, the couple and my other friend were not practicing true presence. Depending on social contexts, they were practicing “incomplete presence” or “false presence.” They were with others but their person was not completely there. Their bodily presence is but a pretense of genuine participation.

All kind of distractions keep us from having a true presence. No need to harp on the ubiquitous distraction of electronic devices in human relationships. Their harm in social intercourse is well researched. Electronic devices are great tools that can enrich our lives. But they cannot substitute true presence with others, nor should they distract us when we are with others. Talking with his student, Phaedrus, Socrates notes that the gift of writing may not be so great a gift. He muses that much of knowledge and understanding can only be shared in actual conversations. Victor Hugo’s Claude Frollo, holding a book, glances up at the great Notre Dame Cathedral and sighs, “Ceci tuers cela” – this will kill that. If not careful, he laments, the printed page will kill our existential experiences. Their prescience speaks to our technological distractions that also may rob what remains of meaningful human encounters.

Beyond e-devices, other distractions are just as larcenous, if not lethal. I was talking with a brilliant college student whose fertile mind made me feel stupid. His inner complexities of thoughts and ideas were so labyrinthine, he had nil interest in my simpler mind. I was with him but he was with himself. Late one night, I was texting simultaneously with three individuals. My mendacity was unbeknown to them. Each thought s/he had my intimate attention. All the while, each became my distraction from the others. One day I ran into an old neighbor and chitchatted.  But our dialogue diverted into his monologues. Any word from me only incented a prolix soliloquy from him.

St. Paul’s understanding of human pathos may help overcome distractions that can keep us from practicing true presence. Dealing with our conceit and selfishness in relationships, he writes: Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Our selfish conceit is a sure way to a false presence with others. All the more, minding others’ interests is a sure way towards a truer presence. I offer a few unfinished observations of how we practice true presence by seeking others’ interests: One, intuitively or intentionally, we pay attention to another. We acknowledge his presence, by watching, listening and responding to who he is and what he says. We attend to him long enough to show our acceptance. Two, we show empathy. Seeking cognitive understanding, we also offer emotive responses to her actions and words. We listen with genuine concerns to validate who she really is and what she has to say. Three, we also engage our multi-sensory. In each other’s presence, we endeavor to share what we both see, hear, touch, feel and/or taste. Sharing time and space, however we do it, we make a point of putting aside our interests long enough to accept, validate and affirm each other.