We hear about it all the time, from those physically near us and (perhaps ironically) through the din of mass-media: We’re too distracted. We aren’t aware of our surroundings. We spend too much time staring into our shiny black rectangles, and not enough time focusing on what’s really important.
This is driven (we are told) by our modern, connected age, and a persistent “fear of missing out”. We’re encouraged to be truly present. Right here, right now. Alive in the fleeting moment, confronting it directly. Absorbed, in a good way.
This is a noble goal.
Attention is a zero-sum game, and in that light it seems that the opposite of being present isn’t being absent, but being scattered. We’re torn between competing interests, so we punt and try to choose all of them at once: our companions, our dinner, our followers on Twitter, our friends on Slack, a video, IMDB. In theory, we should just focus on one of these things. But if we choose just one, then what will all the others think?
It seems clear that if we’re asked to be truly present for someone or something, we must (in a very real sense) be truly absent from everything else. If this true presence is a great attribute, then isn’t an equally true absence just as great? Our society’s great fear of missing out could be as much about fleeing genuine absence as a reluctance to embrace authentic presence.
To cultivate presence, we must embrace noble absence in ourselves while encouraging noble absence in others.
This is extremely difficult. It’s hard enough choosing to be away from the people or things we love. It’s even harder to accept when the people or things we love need to be away from us so they can be truly there for others.
Perhaps we’re afraid that what we consider important isn’t important to others. Maybe instead we fear that those close to us can never tolerate us being truly away, whether from home, from work, or from a globe-spanning online community. Maybe we’re just afraid that nobody will miss us when we’re gone.
As we practice being present for those we care about, we must courageously accept and even encourage those moments when we discover them nobly absent.
It’s much easier said than done.