The Virtue of Presence

I find it can be difficult to be right here, right now.

Can you relate?

Virtues are habits of character that enable us to attain our most sacred or important goals. Jesus—the spark, the energizer, and the exemplar of the Christian tradition—has given Christians a goal: love (Mk 12:30-31). I believe Christians ought to cultivate virtues because they are the way to love: they are the character qualities that equip us and sustain us as we regularly and increasingly fulfill our human responsibility to one another.

Among many of the virtues Christians would do well to cultivate, presence is one of the most important.

Presence has to do with the way we are when we are with others. In some cases, presence is about simply showing up to be with others in the first place. Presence is the virtue that overcomes an opposite temptation: the temptation to be absent or withdraw.

Speaking as a Christian—but knowing I don’t speak for all Christians—there are a lot of ways I see Christians tempted to be absent or withdraw.

We may be tempted to fixate on life after death and to orient our theology and worship toward this future and how we will, as individuals, flourish in it, often at the expense of the now and the people who live in the now. Presence directs us to life before death and our responsibility to take care of one another and the world we currently inhabit.

We may be tempted to become defensive or anxious when criticized and then find ways to dismiss or discredit our critics so we do not have to take their critiques seriously. Presence helps us face those critics and welcome their critiques rather than run away from them.

We may be tempted to recoil from others due to unconscious biases we have toward certain people who are not like us—biases that might stem from unfamiliarity, inexperience, or stubborn narratives passed down to us from previous generations about what these people are like. Presence allows us to remain with others and truly see them as they are.

We may be tempted, when we do not know what to say to someone who is hurting, to offer platitudes or irrelevant advice, or to altogether avoid them because we feel we have nothing fitting to say. Presence helps us sit—possibly silently—with others who simply need us to be there.

We may be tempted to overly rely on electronic communication to be with others and communicate with them, turning a good, connective mechanism into something isolating. Presence reminds us to occasionally touch each other, share a meal, and look one another in the eye.

We may be tempted to come to quick, premature conclusions about others, basing our evaluations only partly on what others are saying or doing and more heavily on what assumptions we bring to the interaction. Presence encourages us to wait patiently and really listen.

We may be tempted to close our eyes to the horrors of the world, to dismissively mislabel issues of justice as “politics” and ignore them with ease, to overlook the voices of those with less privilege or power. Presence forces us to pay attention to what is happening, painful or confrontational as it may be.

We may be tempted to see people who interrupt our routine or plans as nuisances. Presence reminds us of the sacredness of every person and to occasionally set aside our good projects and tasks for the sake of the person in front of us.

We may be tempted to let our negative emotions hijack and derail us, taking us out of a situation when triggered by what someone says and taking us down an anxious, isolating, angry path. Presence helps us recognize and regulate such emotions so that we can remain connected.

We may be tempted to retreat to our phones and miss the beauty around us, whether the beauty of nature or the beauty we might discover through conversation or simply observation of other people. Presence helps us keep our heads up.

We may be tempted to impose our ideas and expectations on others, possibly neglecting their feelings, thoughts, abilities, passions, hopes, and concerns. Presence helps us see others as they are, prior to our wishes for them.

We may be tempted to be armchair critics, weighing in on problems with which we have little experience and on people with whom we have had minimal encounters. Presence forces us to show up, to be physically present, as a way of supporting others and as a means of forming more thoughtful opinions.

We may be tempted to separate ourselves from those we disagree with, finding it easier to divide and then assemble with like-minded people who seemingly impose less of a threat to our present way of seeing, doing, and being. Presence helps us stay together.

Like most virtues, presence can be overdone. There is a point at which remaining present could lead you to neglect other important responsibilities and people, to undervalue your own contributions and needs, or to remain dangerously long in a situation or relationship that is destructive to you. You can be too present.

But in my experience, the more frequently-occurring problem is not being too present but, rather, not being present enough.

And when I fail to be present, I easily fail to love others as they ought to be loved.

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