The Best Present is Presence

Vlada Karpovich,

August, a New Yorker Magazine humor essay by cartoonist Natalya Lobanova struck a nerve, and not merely at my funny bone. It was entitled, “This Is What Your Unsolicited Advice Sounds Like”. Click here to see Natalya’s cartoons. They’re deliciously on-point.

One cartoon depicts a woman being burned at the stake as an observer asks, “Have you considered taking up yoga?” Another shows a woman about to be crushed by a semi-truck barreling toward her. A bystander advises, “Just focus on the things you can control.”

All too often, as a pastor attempting to provide wisdom and emotional and spiritual support during a pandemic, I fear my words of hope, peace, and encouragement are not merely inadequate, but ring pretty hollow in light of the profound anxiety, loneliness, and grief produced by this long season of suffering. During this time I have avoided (thus far) any truly personal ordeal such as the death of a loved one, the forfeiture of my job or business, the fatigue of parenting and schooling a young child while attempting to work, the emotional exhaustion of being a front-line healthcare provider, or the constant worry about the welfare of an elderly parent barred from receiving personal visits.

I cannot possibly appreciate how any of that truly feels, and I suspect many of us are similarly positioned: we have friends and acquaintances whose lives have been twisted inside-out by COVID, and we know that everyone’s experience of it and response to it is unique. So, what in the world do we say to those who are grieving, stressed out, and suffering in ways we can only imagine? How can we avoid being like the clueless advice-givers in Natalya’s cartoons? How can we be helpful?

In a word: presence. With our need to physically distance or isolate ourselves as best we can, presence can seem a tall order these days. Heck, we can’t even be present with friends and family in the same ways this holiday season. But although presence looks and feels different in the age of COVID, it’s still possible and is critically needed. Presence involves much more listening than talking, and more asking gentle questions of how the other is feeling than offering our advice or experience. Presence is not about fixing what’s broken but taking a journey alongside a wounded traveling companion. And that’s not all so difficult when we realize that we all bear the scars of experiencing real life.

Even the most empathetic among us will never fully know how a particular person feels, but we know what it means to be frightened, lost, angry, and alone. Rather than avoiding or attempting to displace those feelings, acknowledging the feelings and patiently sitting with them defines authentic presence. Healing, hope, and peace arrive according to their own schedule, and achieving a state of perpetual bliss is an unrealistic goal. We all have downer moments, and not everything broken can be repaired to its original pristine condition. That’s why we need each other to see life through; this imperfect, hurting, yet beautiful space and time we share and wander within. And during this drawn-out moment in time, FaceTime, Google Duo, Skype, Zoom, or any number of video chat applications provide us with perfectly great options for doing so. Reach out and make a date to be present.

In the Reformed Christian tradition, we observe the season of Advent in the four weeks preceding Christmas Day. The point of Advent is intentional preparation and anticipation — the “cake is in the oven” time — before we celebrate presence with a capital “P”. As a cultural event, Christmas has evolved to mean many things. But at the core of this old story about a baby’s birth is the power of presence. Presence is a sacred thing, and it’s a gift we all possess. Sharing your presence with another is an affirmation that every person possesses inherent value and dignity, and an inner sacred light we call love. Embody that presence, and share that love, and you will provide a Christmas gift that will endure far beyond this season.

Writer, progressive minister, believer in good.

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