Presence

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Do you remember when we used to look at faces?  When a meal time was spent with the people at the actual physical table we were sitting at?  Do you remember how we’d mutually try to remember the name of that actor in that one show who later was in that other movie about the heist, and how that wondering and brain-racking ended in a triumphal, “AHA!” when we figured it out together?  Before the age of swiftly answering the question with a quick jab at Google?  Do you remember being present?

Because I think we’re forgetting.

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One of the major culture shocks upon returning from six years in Chile was that young and old alike were to be seen everywhere, bent over their phones, thumbs busy, in their own little worlds.  Even if they were waiting in a grocery line, one person deep, out came the phone, flying went the thumbs, away went the presence.  This was now normal?

I admit that I am a dinosaur.  I have no cell phone and do not desire one.  I still write letters and cards on paper.  Once when I asked for someone’s phone number and handed them my little notebook, they laughed and couldn’t remember the last time they had written a number on paper instead of keying it into a phone.

I am exasperating to my friends.  If we’ve agreed to meet at a park at 11:00 and I’ve left my home at 10:30 to drive there, there is no way to change plans last minute; they know I’ll be at the park wondering where they are.  They can’t get a hold of me if I’m not home, so admittedly I miss out on some fun outings, but you know what?  I am present where I am.

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Along the Caribbean Sea in Honduras

I don’t always handle things graciously.

We had three dear friends visit us in Chile from North America.  They had traveled thousands of miles to see us, to see Chile, to get it all into their hearts and memories.  One evening as we all sat in the living room, I realized that everyone but me was staring at a screen, laptops or phones, all around.  I was alone in a crowd.  I flipped out.  “What are you doing?!?  HELLO!  Why did you travel to another hemisphere just to be looking at that screen when you’re here?!”

I suppress it, but I have an aching desire to throw an adult temper tantrum when I see a couple out on a date, both absorbed in their phones.  I want to go up to them, tap one of them on the shoulder, point at their significant other across the table and say in a voice of awe “Looooook!  There’s a PERSON across from you!  WOW!!!”  Then I would take their cell phone, unceremoniously dunk it into their drink, and walk away.  I assume I’d be charged with destruction of property, but I think I’d smile in my mug shot.

I have found one peaceful way to express my sentiments.  Now, when my husband takes out his phone when we’re together with friends, I quietly leave the table.  If he asks where I’m going, I simply say “I’m sorry, you have left the table, and so I will also”.  He puts his phone away, smiling and rolling his eyes.

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Presence.

It is most heart-breaking to see the lack of it between a parent and their child.

“Mommy, look at me!  Look at me!”, cries the child, bravely balancing on one foot at the top of the slide.

“Uh-huh”, mumbles the mom, staring down at her phone.

“No, Mommy, you aren’t looking!”

“That’s great, honey”, she says, barely looking up before she’s back to that all-absorbing screen.

The child sits down, the child learns that whatever world is accessed through that screen is much more interesting than the one she’s currently exploring.  She can’t wait to have her own screen.

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I am deeply disturbed by how all this technology is affecting kids, not only by robbing them of Mom and Dad’s presence, but of their own.  If a child needs to sit for more than a few minutes, they are handed a cell phone to watch a movie or play games on.  Like boredom and the space for their own thoughts are not important building blocks for hearty imaginations and creativity.  They are being taught that we must be entertained, always.

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It takes away the marvel, doesn’t it?  The awesomeness of this world, even at a grocery store.  As a child, I made up stories in my mind about the people in line with us.  Sometimes we even (gasp!) talked to them.  I read the magazine covers and wondered if Elvis really was hiding out in California instead of being long-dead.

I don’t expect anyone to live as I do, phone-free.  Many use cell phones wisely and kindly, use them to bless others and encourage others, and call tow trucks for stranded old ladies along the road.  Cell phones have saved lives, but also cost lives through misuse while driving.  They are neutral objects in and of themselves, but our use of them, or misuse of them, can cause great harm.

It may help if you think about your cell phone as a book.  Would you get out a book, mid-conversation with someone, and look through it’s pages?  Would you put it right on the table during a lunch date, and repeatedly pick it up and stare at it?  It would only be appropriate if you picked up the book, opened it to the other person with you and showed them something you found interesting.  That would be lovely, no?

With your kids, can you leave the phone at home when you’re at a park, or turn it off when they come home from school?   Can you carve out hours of full presence?  Can you let them squirm and fidget and sprout some imagination while waiting in line, instead of rushing to entertain?  Can we revive being present?  Can we afford to not do so?

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2 thoughts on “Presence

  1. Sorry that I’m reading this on my smart phone! But I agree, we’ve lost the art of conversation, the privilege of privacy (turn the phone off), of looking someone in the eye and relating in the original “real time”. A friend has a bowl by their front door, all phones go on there when you arrive. Pick them up as you leave, it seems like more is gained (by having uninterrupted conversation) than lost (by the texting/email/calls/web search). I really like your take on life- your writings inspire me!

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