The Gift of Presence

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Years ago, in the locker room at the YMCA as I was putting on my makeup for the day, a young woman approached me and asked if I had a brush she could use.

“A brush?” I snarled. (Side note: As I have done a lot of research on writing in the last few years, I am well aware that although it is possible to snarl when speaking, most editors prefer the “I said/she said/he said” dialogue tags, leaving it up to the following description or action to define the emotion. But I guarantee that on that day, in that locker room, those two words did indeed fly out of my mouth in a manner as snarly as The Grinch’s.)

If I had any doubt whether my cranky response sounded as outwardly harsh as it did inwardly, it was completely diminished by that unsuspecting young woman’s reaction. Her eyes registered shock, uncertainty, and maybe even a little fear. That expression didn’t leave her face even after I handed my brush to her, nor was it gone several minutes later when she came back to return the brush to me (and probably wishing the no-need-for-a-brush messy bun was a thing back then).

If you’re wondering why I responded so peevishly to such a simple request, the answer is also simple: that is the resulting effect of existing more in your own head than in the real world. I wrote last Thursday about the importance of yarding our yesterdays in the name of progress (i.e. keeping the past in the past and living in the present). But our presence is also important because a lack of it—even in a seemingly insignificant thirty-second exchange—is enough to sour what might have otherwise been an opportunity for genuine connection.

Not that I expected this woman and I to become besties had I been more mindful in that moment, but hey, stranger things have happened (like a crazy lady snarling at you for politely asking to borrow her brush). What I do know is this: to this day, I cannot remember where my mind was that morning—whether I was lost in a wasteland of random chatter or caught up in an invented story about myself or others or even rehashing something from earlier in the week that I wished I’d handled differently. But never, no matter how hard I try, can I successfully erase that woman’s horrified expression from my memory.

Perhaps it’s meant to remain forever, a reminder to wake up, to keep the internal chatter from turning into external reactions that are neither rational nor deserved. Maybe it’s a good reminder to us all this time of year. When the holly jolly season turns us into hustling bustling maniacs. When shopping lines run long and fuses run short. When it’s easy to forget that the cashier and the customer service rep and even our loved ones are right there in front of us, not wrapped up in our relentless inner to-do lists or long-held shoulda/coulda/wouldas or whatever else we allow to interfere with our attention in the present moment.

Wherever we go and whomever we encounter, it is up to us to get out of our own head and be there. Because each point of contact—whether a minute or an hour—carries with it a chance and a choice. We can be present or preoccupied. We can bring joy or junk. We can offer blessings or bah humbugs. The decision is ours.

So what kind of presence do you want to give this year?

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