This summer, Amber and I traveled to Tuscany with a group of fellow writers. It was an eclectic group; there was a semi-conservative Baptist minister, a progressive author from Salt Lake City, an author and travel writer from Portland, a missionary, a millennial, and us. Though a few of us were friends, the group was, for the most part, composed of strangers.
When traveling with strangers–whether on an international tour, or on a local church mission trip or humanitarian relief excursion–connection can be awkward. You may find the newness of your experience coupled with the awkwardness of greasing the conversational skids creates a sort of discombobulating perfect storm. And in this perfect storm, there is a great temptation to check out, to distract yourself, to turn to the things that are familiar–things like social media, the twenty-four hour news cycle, or the book you packed in your carry-on luggage.
This, of course, is not a temptation limited to international travel with strangers. This is the great temptation of the day.
We live in a state of modern disconnection, our lives fragmented from the present reality by the virtual or fantastical. A colleague comes into your office, and you fail to look up from your iPhone. In conversation with your spouse, a text message pops up on your screen, and you reach for your phone with near animal instinct. The waitress brings your your food, and you do not look up from the CNN app on your tablet to thank her, nor do you notice the arrangement of food on the plate before digging in. As Henri Nouwen wrote,
“In a time so filled with methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other.”
We are all fellow travelers here, whether we’re traveling through Tuscany, or the mundane 8-5 shift of the day. The goal of that traveling, I think, is to recognize the presence of God around us, and to be present with each other. And allow me to make this disclaimer: I’ve developed my own practices of fragmentation and un-presence. That being said, here are a few practices that may help increase our practice of presence.
5 Presence Practices
1. Delete Apps. (GASP!)
If there is one thing that distracts me from recognizing the presence of God and from being present with those around me, it’s the constant buzzing of my iPhone. Last week, I tried to shut off all notification hoping that this would somehow keep me from constantly looking at the ever-present stream of communication crossing my device. Alas, I am a weak man, and checked my apps during every spare moment, including conversational lulls. I am addicted to my apps.
Just a few years ago, we humans traversed this one life just fine without constant communication. Now, it’s become part of the milieu of our fragmented society. Delete the apps for a day and be fully engaged with the world around you. See how you feel without the constant buzzing distractions.
2. Look up from your phone.
I know that the news is important, that the Facebook message you just received from your friend in Kalamazoo deserves a good laugh. I’m sure that the tweet mentioning you just launched you into the vaunted viral stratosphere. I know that work is buzzing, buzzing, buzzing, and that you have to answer just one last email. You keep saying, “this is it, I promise,” as if the emphatic tone somehow denotes that it really is the last notification, tweet, or email you’ll answer while we’re at the lunch table.
Stop. Put the phone face down. Ignore the news alerts and look at your traveling companions.
3. Listen to others.
Listening is a learned skill, one which, if I’m honest, I’ve not honed as well as I would like. Allow me to suggest a few listening observations: (1) if you are listening while typing a text message, you are not listening; (2) if you are listening while scrolling through your Facebook feed, you are probably not listening; (3) if you are listening while thinking of what to say next, or how to turn the conversation to your own topic du jour, you are definitely not listening.
Listen to those around you. Give them your undivided attention. See how this practice affects your presence.
4. Describe your experience with words
Presence requires communication, and though some communication is non-verbal, language is our primary medium of conveying messages. Language matters. Stretch yourself to describe your experiences in the most descriptive terms possible. Is the cheese good, or is it musky, smokey, perhaps a touch sweet? Is the mountain big or does it stretch above the tree line, just over the tops of the low clouds. More descriptive language draws us deeper into the present experience. Descriptive language requires us to be observant and creative; in a word, it requires us to be present.
Presence with your fellow travelers requires compromise. Your sojourner is tired and needs a minute to rest? Find a coffee bar, order a couple of macchiatos and converse. Your co-worker needs a little help with a pressing deadline and they are loosing their stuff trying to get it done? Ask whether you can help, listen as they describe the goals of the project.
The ability to compromise shows our willingness to serve our fellow travelers. Compromise with joy, peace, and patience. Serve because you want to be present.
These are not the easiest presence practices, I know. In fact, I’m struggling my way through practices 1 and 2. But the little things make a big difference, and allow us to experience the presence of God in each other. Consider employing these presence practices, and feel free to share some of your own with me.
Now, go forth and be present.
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