Presence in the Midst of Crisis


OUR TIMES segment -- HERE


I want to talk about presence – being present for each other in an attentive way. Our presence is a fundamental offering. A person aligned with their purpose, who has integrity and wholeness, creates a presence that ripples out through the world. It reassures and empowers others. It changes the world.

Henry Nouwen, in his 1974 book, Out of Solitude, wrote:
“When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”
I want to talk about presence in the midst of crisis. This last week has been a tough one. Let’s just be present to that for a few minutes.

The global death toll from Covid-19 is confirmed at over 370,000, and over 28% of those deaths were in the U.S., which passed 100,000 deaths this week. We have lost parents and children, siblings, co-workers, close friends, beloved spouses. We are awash in grief, and deprived of the memorial services that afford us a chance to process our grief within a context of family and people who simply come to pay their respects – people barely known to the principal mourners who nevertheless provide the gift of their presence.

Apart from the death toll, the unemployed now number more than 40 million – 40 million claims for jobless benefits have been filed in the last 10 weeks. It’s an unemployment rate of 14 percent – the highest since the Great Depression.

Then came the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man killed by Minneapolis police officers, and the incident between a dog-walker and a bird-watcher in Central Park that vividly informed us that America’s racism problem, for one, has not been dampened by the Coronavirus. Indeed, as the lawyer for George Floyd’s family said in a statement: “The pain that the black community feels over this murder and what it reflects about the treatment of black people in America is raw and is spilling out onto streets across America.” Meanwhile, white supremacists are also taking to the streets, vandalizing and looting apparently with the aim of black protestors being blamed for it.

In past crises, the commander-in-chief became the mourner-in-chief, giving to the country empathetic presence. Instead, our president is waging war against Twitter, floating baseless theories that Joe Scarborough killed a former staff member two decades ago, and suggesting that looters be shot. The opposite of present, after all, isn’t exactly absent – the more precise opposite of present is: distracted.

It’s been a difficult week. And it comes at the end of a pretty rough 10 weeks. In perspective, bad weeks are normal in human history. We have not seen the like in our lifetime, but in the broad sweep of millennia, political dysfunction has been cropping up since there was politics. Plagues and pandemics have been periodically striking since before the Common Era. Unrest and uncertainty have been more common in human history than peace and prosperity.

Still, it’s a difficult adjustment for many of us. Many people, cut off from the social circulation to which they are accustomed, are feeling the effects – often feeling numb. “Sleepwalking through my life,” they might say. I read one account of a person who said, “I feel like I have two modes: barely functioning and boiling angry.” Another said, “I’ve lost faith in myself. I don’t know if I can actually justify taking up space and resources. My purpose is disintegrating.”

Depression is way up. Before the pandemic, the rough estimate for how many people met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression was roughly about 5 to 7 percent. Now, Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, estimates 50 percent of the U.S. population is experiencing depressive symptoms. Half of us.

“Experiencing depressive symptoms” is not the same thing as meeting the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Still, people – maybe you -- are taking this hard: the isolation, the stasis – and often significant medical stress, financial stress, or both. If you defined yourself by your work and that work disappears, or knew who you were through particular modes of interaction with others and that interaction is gone, a basic sense of self might be lost.

There’s a risk that feelings of numbness, powerlessness, and hopelessness may be considered normal – that this is just what life is. It isn’t – it doesn’t have to be.

We need social responses to relieve the medical and financial stresses, and, yes, let’s all participate in the processes for that: vote, write to your representatives, march, contribute if you can to causes. Beyond that, the alternative to pandemic dysphoria begins – well, it begins by determining whether medical help is called for. Google “am I depressed?” Talk to your primary care physician about whether you should see a mental health professional.

With or without medical assistance, the road to presence begins with presence to yourself. If you’re feeling numb, feel the numbness – which might sound paradoxical, but investigate it: where does the numbness seem to originate from, are there any particular parts of your body that feel different. At the end of every day, jot down when during the day did you feel most numb and least numb. And while you’re there with pen in hand, write down some gratitudes – that’s always good practice. Pay attention to what’s up with you.

The opposite of presence is distraction, and to cultivate presence, notice when you escape into self-distraction: “Organizing an already well-organized sock drawer, baking bread you don’t even want, or endlessly scrolling through Instagram” (Hamblin, Atlantic). While preferable to staying in bed all day, those are ways we distract ourselves. Exercise is great, but if your response to global pandemic is that you’re going to work out really hard, then exercise itself can be escapist distraction.

Attentive presence to ourselves can be hard. It helps us be able to give presence to ourselves if we have a friend or family member who can give us that gift of presence. And sometimes it helps us be present to ourselves if we practice by being present to others. The friend who cares, as Nouwen wrote, is present – undistractedly there: sharing silence in the midst of despair or confusion; sharing company in grief; tolerating not knowing, not fixing; facing together the reality of powerlessness.

What we most need from one another is simply presence. There’s a lot we can’t fix it – and we, as individuals, don’t need to. What we can do is be there – for our lives, for our families, for our friends, for anyone we have occasion with whom to spend a few minutes: whether through a screen, or through masks, or naked face to naked face.

As Nouwen’s “Out of Solitude” went on to explain:
“When we start being too impressed by the results of our work, we slowly come to the erroneous conviction that life is one large scoreboard where someone is listing the points to measure our worth. And before we are fully aware of it, we have sold our soul to the many grade-givers. That means we are not only in the world, but also of the world. Then we become what the world makes us. We are intelligent because someone gives us a high grade. We are helpful because someone says thanks. We are likable because someone likes us. And we are important because someone considers us indispensable. In short, we are worthwhile because we have successes. And the more we allow our accomplishments — the results of our actions — to become the criteria of our self-esteem, the more we are going to walk on our mental and spiritual toes, never sure if we will be able to live up to the expectations which we created by our last successes. In many people’s lives, there is a nearly diabolic chain in which their anxieties grow according to their successes. This dark power has driven many of the greatest artists into self-destruction.”
But when we are present to someone else – just undistractedly there – our presence, our attention to them without judgment or advice affirms as only such presence can affirm: it’s not about the scoreboard.

You don’t have to do anything except do you. It doesn’t matter what your successes have been. It doesn’t matter what your failures have been. Someone who is present for you is not there for the sake of “better.” They’re not there to help you do better, or be better, or get better. They’re not there to take your pain away, but to share it.


Dear Source of our Energies and Efforts,
We have been self-protective when we could have been more vulnerable and open. This is not sin. It’s just that we aren’t always as skillful as we could be at judging when self-protection is warranted. And we almost always err on the side of being guarded.

May we be more present, more self-revealing, more open to new experience, more tender more often.

May we trust a little more.

May we be less often reactive and more often curious.

May we be less often demanding and more often grateful.

May we be less often afraid, and when fear arises, may we manage it skillfully, neither suppressing nor indulging.

And may we attend to the call of justice.

As we hear news of political turmoil and broken promises in Hong Kong, as we hear of racist incidents in Central Park and police killing in Minnesota, may we have prophetic words to speak truth to those who abuse their power wherever they are found, and words of comfort for those who suffer from racism or political oppression.

As our world continues to wrestle with the political, medical, economic, and cultural implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – as the U.S. death toll surpassed 100,000 -- may we speak to one another in ways that are respectful of the needs of those around us.

May we turn away from an inward focus, and see the ways we affect other people.

May we thus orient toward justice, and encourage those around us to orient toward justice, and may the company we keep be company that encourages and supports orientation toward justice.

May we embody love, and may we thereby transform our world.

We do not seek a world without conflict, but one in which the most violent conflicts are becoming ever less and less violent. May we be a part of making that so.



The 1979 film, Being There, illustrates the power of – being there. Peter Sellers plays Chance, an illiterate gardener who has spent his whole life on an estate, learning about and then tending to the gardens. He’s never left the property. Other than gardening, he watches a lot of television.

When estate owner dies, Chance has to move out. Chance wanders aimlessly in the city, Washington DC, and happens to be struck by a chauffeured car owned by elderly business mogul Ben Rand. When he tells them he is “Chance the gardener,” he is misheard as saying "Chauncey Gardiner."
They take Chance back to their home to recover. Since Chance has been allowed to take clothes from the attic of his erstwhile benefactor, he is wearing expensive tailored clothes from the 1920s and 1930s.

Ben Rand takes "Chauncey" for an upper-class, highly-educated businessman who has fallen on hard times. Rand admires him, finding him direct, wise and insightful. He tells him, “You know Chauncey, there’s something about you. You don’t play games with words to protect yourself.”

Rand is an advisor to the President of the United States, whom he introduces to "Chauncey." In the course of the conversation, the president asks Chance if he thinks “we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives.”

Chance says, “as long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well, in the garden.”

The President says: “In the garden.”

Chance says: “Yes. In the garden, growth has it seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

Ben Rand interjects: “I think what our insightful young friend is saying is that we welcome the inevitable seasons of nature, but we're upset by the seasons of our economy.”

And President says: “Well, Mr. Gardner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I've heard in a very, very long time. I admire your good, solid sense. That's precisely what we lack on Capitol Hill.”

Subsequently, the President gives a speech in which he quotes “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance rises to national prominence, attends important dinners, appears on a television talk show during which his detailed advice about what a serious gardener should do is misunderstood as his opinion on what would be his presidential policy. By the end of the film, we see political operatives discussing who their party’s next nominee for president should be, and they’re agreeing on Chauncey Gardiner.

The movie is a comedy, and it’s a spoof of the cluelessness of business moguls, politicians, and the media. Chance, albeit inadvertently, dupes them all, and I don’t think real people in those positions would be quite so easily duped. But one thing about Chance: he’s not very bright, but he is present. He’s not distracted by calculations about advancing his own agenda because he doesn’t have an agenda. He’s just there. And the film shows us how attractive that is.

We hunger for another person’s simple presence. People who don’t get that very much – such as people in positions of power who only ever encounter other people who are trying to get something from them or just be close to a center of power – may especially feel that need. I’ve had days when I would have loved to spend an hour with Chance the Gardener. I wouldn’t take him to be a sagacious oracle, but I’d have appreciated the balm of his presence and maybe getting out of my own head to think about what makes plants healthy and grow.

Being there -- presence -- is a form of love, and it’s respect – respect for the other’s humanity, for their animality, for their being, which Chance exhibits intuitively, unreflexively, without conscious intention to do so. Presence respects, but it does not approve, for approval would turn the encounter back into a scoreboard matter. Nor is disapproval relevant.

If we have learned to be present to ourselves – to hold in nonjudgmental awareness all the voices and feelings that arise in ourselves – then we can be present to others, for others just are ourselves in a slightly modified form. Others are ourselves – including the aspects of others that we don’t like. There is no evil in any heart that isn’t also, in some measure, in mine. Because there is no evil in any one that isn’t also, in some measure, in me, I can bring presence to people who have done awful things. Nouwen explains:
“To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too.
When others torture, I could have done the same. When others heal, I could have healed too. And when others give life, I could have done the same. Then we experience that we can be present to the soldier who kills, to the guard who pesters, to the young man who plays as if life has no end, and to the old man who stopped playing out of fear for death. Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.”
Attentive, undistracted presence is a grace – a gift that we don’t earn or deserve.

It’s a kind of miracle, which the film Being There indicates in its final scene where Chance strolls across a pond, walking on water. Nouwen references this miracle-working power when he writes:
“Those who really can receive bread from a stranger and smile in gratitude, can feed many without even realizing it. Those who can sit in silence with their fellow man not knowing what to say but knowing that they should be there, can bring new life in a dying heart. Those who are not afraid to hold a hand in gratitude, to shed tears in grief, and to let a sigh of distress arise straight from the heart, can break through paralyzing boundaries and witness the birth of a new fellowship, the fellowship of the broken.”
In the midst of crisis, may we receive and give this miraculous gift.


From Rainer Maria Rilke:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

1 comment:

  1. Herbal Penis Enlargement product is 100% guarantee to Enlarge and get a better ERECTION ,
    the reason why most people are finding it difficult
    to enlarge Penis is because they bedlieve on medical
    report, drugs and medical treatment which is not
    helpful for Penis Enlargemaent . Natural roots/herbs are the best remedy which can easily Enlarge your Penis permanently
    Contact Dr AIZONOFE via Email : draizonofeherb@gmail. com or via WhatsApp : +2348136785562 for Natural root and herbal remedies put together to help you get Enlarge and Erect healthy.
    Thank you.