THE GIFT OF PRESENCE

     

In our brave new world in which we connect to our fellow human beings through apps and platforms, we actually lose the real thread of relationship which is physical presence, so much more important than the often careless communiques we send over the Internet.  

As I write these words, I must confess that I am working remotely on a laptop from home rather than in the office environment I'm fortunate to be part of. Most of us spend eight to twelve hours per day working, including a commute. In my case, as a writer, my contribution to the common efforts of my organization does not strictly require my physical presence in the office. But despite occasional office politics, and the fatigue which ensues from a long commute, most of the time I welcome the opportunity simply to see and chat with the other people involved in our projects. It is exhilarating to be part of a team, however informal that arrangement may be. It augments my feeling of engagement, knowing that my work will be read by at least the four other people I work with.  

Writers are famous for needing solitude in which to confront and wrestle with the blank page or screen. But we need company, too, the reassurance that there are other people at hand to remind us that there is a world beyond the one between our ears! Too often, I'm living in my own mind, arguably a dangerous place to visit alone. And I find that Facebook and Twitter sometimes, paradoxically, reinforce this sense of isolation. By the time I emerge from a long session with these entities, I realize that I have given short shrift to the flesh and blood people in my midst.  

It is interesting to note that just as the office seems to be disappearing for many people who now work remotely, these same people, often creative types, now often choose to work at an internet cafe, or even to rent space in a communal office, thereby recreating--albeit in looser, non-hierarchical form--the organizational atmosphere they sought freedom from. I think this is because we simply get lonely when we work exclusively at home. We are missing "the gift of presence." 

I mentioned the daily commute. When I am in the right frame of mind--meaning when I nail a seat!--I find I can appreciate even this lengthy chore as an unlikely opportunity for the gift of presence. The other morning, from 14th Street to Franklin--a full twelve minutes--just before I change for the express to Brooklyn at Chambers Street, a woman was loudly, urgently and unceasingly proclaiming the wonders of finding Jesus. She didn’t seem crazy; only persistent. Ordinarily I would feel intruded upon by such a spectacle, but I found, as the ride wore on, that I simply surrendered to her enthusiasm without in the least sharing her belief. I was happy that she was happy. Or maybe I was just glad that somebody dared to pierce the psychic armor of riders absorbed in their smartphones. I'm not saying I want to be regaled with a sermon every morning, but somehow the woman’s imperturbable oration highlighted the extent to which we are more connected to devices than to the people right next to us.

  

A form of Buddhist meditation, known as Metta, instructs us to direct our good wishes even towards strangers for whom our attitude is neutral. This might include the MTA employee who sells us a Metrocard, or a server in a restaurant. “May they be well and happy,” are the words of Metta, a very simple prayer that inwardly conveys our essential connectedness to the people right in front of us.

Perhaps if we were as mindful of sentient beings as we are of platforms and apps, fewer people would feel the need--on subways and elsewhere--to take our attention hostage through sound and fury.

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