“Did she really just do that?”
Those words flew through my mind one afternoon in the checkout line. My wife and I were shopping a local market. As we stood in the checkout line, the clerk scanned our items and we waited for the total bill. I scrolled through my emails on my smartphone, as I did all the time. And then, suddenly, my hands were empty.
I looked up and the clerk was holding my smartphone. I can remember thinking, “Did she just really just take my phone away?!” A moment later, my wife gave her a high five and I finally found my words again. I asked her, “Anyone ever respond poorly to that move?” She said, “Yes, a businessman lost it on me once.”
As we finished up the transaction, she went on to tell us how she had become tired of being ignored by her customers who were talking on the phone. They scrolled social media or responding to emails as if she were not a person serving them. She began taking their phones until the transaction was completed. My wife became her biggest fan that day! I left still shocked by what had happened (I did get my phone back). Years later, the moment remains burned in my brain.
Be Present: A Challenge
Being present has never been a bigger challenge for us than it is today. We have a lot of shiny things to distract us from being present physically and mentally. The universal sign of “don’t talk to me” is now looking at our smart phones and many of us struggle with focusing for any length of time.
It’s incredibly easy to be present physically in a space and not be there mentally. We’re with one group of people in body but with another group of people in mind and spirit. Whether it is a meeting at work, a social event we wish we could’ve skipped or an uncomfortable conversation with someone we care about, our phones offer us a convenient way to avoid the challenge of being present.
But distraction-via-phone is not the only way we’re challenged to be present. This video reminds us of many of the challenges.
Why We Can’t Be Present
Some of us are challenged to be present in this moment because we’d rather live in the past. Nostalgia becomes our outlet for avoiding the uncomfortable moment we now inhabit. We look back on the “good ol’ days” with wonder and awe, longing for them to return and avoiding this time and place. We’re frustrated with this season of life and yearn for what was. Living in the past ushers us back to good memories of time with friends and family, especially when we feel lonely or disappointed with our relationships in the present.
Others of us are challenged to be present because we’re obsessed with the future. We’ve become impatient with the process and we want the future to arrive faster. We wish we could graduate already or meet that person or get that bonus or receive that promotion. Some of us wish we could retire and start living the life we want rather than working at a job we neither enjoy nor find meaning within.
Regret and shame make the present difficult too. Our past mistakes turn the present into a painful place because we’re obsessed with what did in the past. Simultaneously, we try to avoid living in the past because it hurts so much. We would try to live in the future but we’re not exactly sure we’ll ever break free from the pain and defeat. The present becomes the home of the consequences or feelings we do all we can to numb. For those of us battling regret and shame, it’s like we’re homeless without a time to call our own.
The Cost We Pay When We Can’t Be Present
The cord which runs through all of these challenges is what we miss out on when we cannot be present. This moment – the breath you’re taking now as you read the sentence – is the only you’re guaranteed. The past has already come and moved on. It is never coming back. The future is not promised. Life is incredibly fragile, more than we often realize. The present will be gone before we know it, never to return again.
As a dad, I’m learning my kids will never be their current age ever again. I can long for the days when I laid them down in one spot and came back to find them in the same place. But that time is gone. I look forward to the days when I no longer need to change their diapers, but when I do, I miss out on the joy of them running to meet me when I come home from work. Just last night, the peace was overwhelming as my son fell asleep on my chest. I let him lay there for longer than I normally would because I was thinking about writing this post. The moment was rich and full and I decided to soak it in deeply.
What does it mean to be present amidst all of our challenges? Here’s some ideas of where you might start.
Be Present through Forgiveness
If you struggle with living in the present because you’re battling regret and shame, your next step might be forgiving yourself. While I know forgiving others is a great battle, I think for many of us we struggle most with letting ourselves off the hook. If we had a friend who spoke to us the way we talk to ourselves in our heads, we would break up with that friend and never speak to them again. We need to give ourselves the same grace God has offered to us and we have offered to others. When we refuse to forgive ourselves, the rest of the world moves on while we remain stuck. Unforgiveness keeps us stuck in the past and we miss out on the gifts of the present.
Be Present through Patience
If you struggle with living in the present because you’re obsessed with the future, your next step might be learning to be patient with the process. I find it ironic how many of us long for the future to arrive. When it finally comes, we get nostalgic and look longingly towards the past. The season we wanted so desperately to end we end up wishing would return. As I wrote recently, I struggled being present in a past season because I was mentally stuck in a future which hadn’t arrived yet. As I now inhabit that future, I realize how much the past prepared me for that moment. I see places where I left joy and pleasure on the table because I was so focused on the destination I didn’t enjoy the journey along the way.
Be Present Through Boundaries
If you struggle with living in the present because you’re distracted by your phone, your next step might be setting boundaries. I once fasted from my Blackberry for a year and learned a lot in the process. I’m working currently on setting my phone down when I arrive at home, so I can be present with my family. I continually turn off more and more notifications, so I’m less distracted. We’re way ahead on our data usage this month, so all my apps are off unless I’m on WiFi (less distraction and more presence as a result).
There are apps which will prevent you from visiting certain sites if you need to be present with your work. Airplane mode or Do Not Disturb work even when you’re on the ground or not sleeping. I think we often forget we control our phones and not the other way around. Just because your phone pings doesn’t mean you’re its slave and need to respond. There should never be a doubt in those around us that they mean more to us than whatever is happening on our phone.
Be Present Through Gratitude
If you struggle with living in the present because you’re nostaglic about what has ended, your next step might be giving thanks. Gratitude is one of the most powerful perspective-altering disciplines. It is difficult to despise what we’re actively giving God thanks for on a daily basis. Looking for the bright side of a dark, difficult situation does tend to allow more light into our field of vision. In the same way our eyes become adjusted to the dark the longer we remain in it, I find it incredible how much I can see in a dark place with just a little bit of light.
Gratitude doesn’t change our present circumstance; it changes our perspective on our present circumstance. Just as nostalgia focuses us on the good of the past at the neglect of the bad, gratitude focuses us on the good of the present at the neglect of the bad. Both are equally powerful forces to root us in a time and place. I firmly believe gratitude to be far more helpful though.
Do you know someone who is present with ease? They make you feel like you’re the only person in a crowded room they care about. They convince you there’s nowhere else in the world they’d rather be. You love spending time with them, right?
It is possible for each of us to become that kind of person. Presence is not only a learned ability; it is also a powerful gift to others. The possibilities are endless when we choose to be present.
A Reminder to Be Present
***For years, this poster hung on my office door. It was originally a promotional piece for Catalyst 2011 (a church leaders conference), whose theme for that particular year was “Be Present.” While the words invited me to attend the conference, they remain a reminder of a calling to a life today, one of presence in this place, with these people, for God’s purposes. I hope they remind you of the same calling. Feel free to save the poster below as a tool to remind you of the power of presence.