Present Presence

My 5- and 6-year-old sons were in a week-long day camp during a break from school. The camp focused on “music and movement,” which is another way of saying it was a theater camp.  Each week had a theme. The week my boys attended was Elvis week. They learned how to pretend to play the guitar and shake their hips. They had a blast.

The camp concluded with a performance on Friday. I arrived early and got a seat on aisle so I’d be sure to see both children wherever they happened to be on the stage. When performance time came I was taken aback when every single adult in the audience stood up, took out their phones and began filming the performance. There was no way I could see through the barrage of phones and iPads. I found it strange that I was the only person who was actually watching the performance, not the screen, but couldn’t see it.

The poet Wendell Berry speaks to this in his poem “The Vacation,” in which a man spends his vacation filming it, “preserving” it.

It would be there. With a flick

of a switch, there it would be. But he

would not be in it. He would never be in it.

I completely understand this phenomenon of being there but not being present. I absolutely suffer from it too. My mind is always running through a list of the next three things to do. I am always trying to see if the other person I needed to talk to about x is here in the room. Even when I look into the eyes of my little boys, telling me a sweet story they made up about their Lego creation, I am thinking about what I need to do next.

It is hard for me to connect with people in my life. I’m not sure if this is because of my chaotic childhood, my inability to trust people, my own anxiety, or all of the above. I am gregarious, fairly likable, open, but I never seem to actually get close to others. I think to myself, “I should take medication. Maybe this would help me to connect with others …” Or is this disconnection, this loneliness, what connects me to Christ and His sufferings?

When we are at last united with Christ, what will that feel like? Will He have time for me? Or will He look over my head for the next person in the room? I give Christ my symptoms of anxiety.

I honestly do not know what it is like to look into someone’s eyes and have them be completely present for me for more than a minute. The artist Marina Abramovic exhibited a performance art piece called “The Artist is Present” at MOMA a few years ago. In the piece, she offered herself to a “sitter,” a museum patron simply sitting across from her for a few minutes, as completely present, silent but meeting their gaze, never breaking it. The sitters’ responses ranged from nervous giggles, to iced stoicism, to tears.

The response to Abramovic was so powerful, it makes me wonder what it will be like to sit across from Christ. Will I giggle? Will I crumble? Will I meet His gaze? St Paul says that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I will be fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). I feel that this is a promise, that I will be a new creation, that I will not reach for my phone to record my meeting, that I will not be thinking about how I can tell others later. I will allow myself to be loved.