The present of presence

Stroll with Nicole

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Nicole Law offers a few tips on how to rediscover the lost art of being present.

I’ve nestled myself into the last available seat on the train on my morning commute and scanned the carriage. As expected, everyone around me is neck-deep in their devices, eyes glued to their screens. The absence of chatter is almost eerie – I make out the frenetic screen-tapping interspersed with the steady whirr of the moving train. 

I feel a tug at my shirt sleeve and realise a toddler is seated next to me. She is holding a colouring book in her hand and gazes at me expectantly. Her mother is seated next to her, oblivious to her daughter’s efforts, engrossed in the modern ritual of clearing overnight messages. I connect the dots and whisper “That is beautiful. I love the yellows and greens you used for that parrot.” A wide smile breaks across the child’s face and I cannot help but smile too. 

How often do we give others our undivided attention? The steady use of devices at our dinner tables or even friendly catch-up sessions is indicative of something sorely lacking in modern life – the gift of presence

While we may be bodily present at that meeting, birthday celebration or family dinner, often that is the only part of ourselves that is really there at all. Our minds are wandering – concerned with news articles, work deadlines and invisible stresses that weigh heavily on our minds. 

The French philosopher, Simone Weil wisely wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Indeed, to give something or someone our attention is to be generous! 

To be attentive means to remove all distractions and to focus on the person right in front of us. Often, we are afraid of doing this because we are forced to confront some uncomfortable realities about our relationships. Stripping away distractions or elements of superficiality compels us to take a long hard look at the people we live or work with and to see them as they are – imperfect, flawed, yet deserving of our love. 

Far too often, we are swept up with the pandemic of ‘busyness’, such that we hardly take a moment just to exist and to be present to others.

Has God given us the Covid pandemic to help us correct this? 

The noise that surrounds us threatens to overwhelm us and we find it increasingly hard to draw clear boundaries between work and personal life. How often have we let our responsibilities – be it work or otherwise – encroach into valuable time spent with friends and family? I myself have been guilty of checking my phone far more often than is necessary, sometimes even when I am with loved ones . 

But not all is lost…

Paying attention to the needs of others starts somewhere and we can start today. It begins with an awareness of our inherent restlessness and inability to focus. 

It begins with an awareness that to truly nurture our relationships, we must create the space and time to build greater trust and intimacy. It begins with doing small things like putting our phone away during meals or listening with the intention of understanding. It begins with disconnecting for a few minutes, hours or days to reconnect with the ones we love. It does not need to be a monumental overhaul of our lifestyles, the essential thing is just to begin. Some of you might like to use the season of Lent, beginning soon, as a spur to take this first step.

When we start to slow down, to listen attentively, to remove ourselves from the madding crowd, we will start to notice things we didn’t perceive before and to experience life in a new way. We will begin to notice the tone of our friend’s laugh, the creases in our mother’s eyes when she smiles and that toddler in the morning rush hour, pointing at her colouring book. 

We would begin to see God in the people and situations of everyday life, if only we paid a little more attention!

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