The Discipline of Being Fully Present

The Discipline of Being Fully Present

To be present is to listen and to identify with each other as mortal, fragile human beings who need to be heard and sustained by one another, not distracted or entertained. 
     Henri Nouwen

One of the disciplines that we both care very deeply about is the practice of being ‘fully’ present with our neighbors.  And it is truly a discipline, something we really need to work at practicing constantly, because we live in a world where there are a thousand different mechanisms trying to grab our attention.

A few nights ago I (Tom) made a call to a family friend expecting the conversation to last only five minutes. I had an agenda in my mind and I was hoping to conclude the conversation quickly so that I could more on to more pressing matters that needed to be dealt with. But as the conversation progressed, I sensed that this friend really needed to share, to unburden , to open up about the struggles that were being faced. As the five minute mark came and went, I needed to remind myself that I needed to be fully present—every other pressing issue could wait—and needed to. I needed to remind myself that the agenda I had created wasn’t nearly as significant as identifying fragile state of my friend. I needed to remind myself that there have been times—many of them—where I have needed someone else to be fully present as I have unburdened myself in much the same way.

It’s not easy – in fact it can be very hard – to be fully present in another’s life at vital and significant moments. It’s something that all of us surely have difficulty doing completely and well. But the effort, the discipline is worth it. It’s worth it for what we can learn as we grow in greater understanding of others and as others come to see and know that they are cared for and respected exactly for who they are.

No one in our time may have exemplified that more than Fred Rogers, of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, who has said:

If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.

In February, the author Tim Madigan is coming to speak at an event to raise support for our work. Tim wrote the book, I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers, a book which we reference, love and quote a lot. If you’ve been reading our posts you have certainly seen our many references to Tim and to Fred. This book’s message has had a profound impact on our mission together. Tim will share at that February event about his close, intimate relationship with this iconic American hero, Mr. Rogers. One of the common themes he has written about is this:

But in my mind, something else was at the heart of his greatness. It was his unique capacity for relationship, what Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod once called “a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy.” It was true in almost every person he met, be it television’s Katie Couric or a New York City cabdriver; the Dalai Lama or the fellow handing out towels at the health club where Fred went to swim. Fred wanted to know the truth of your life, the nature of your insides, and had room enough in his own spirit to embrace without judgment whatever that truth might be …. Even if you can’t believe on your own goodness from time to time, know that I always do.

Being fully present with someone – not being distracted, really listening, making the time to grow to know that person, entering without reservation into that person’s life – is a tremendous gift to them and to us.

How well do you give that gift? How well do others give it to you?

It’s not a gift that is given easily; it doesn’t always come naturally in our fast-paced world of demands and distractions. We have to be intentional about it, about sharing it and showing others that we really do care about their feelings, their experiences and their thoughts. Simply knowing that someone else is interested in our concerns and fears, our joys and triumphs, is a huge boost to our well-being and sense of worth. It helps us to feel that we are valued and significant, that our concerns are recognized and heard. We can find strength in knowing that someone else cares about us. We find peace in knowing that others are interested in and invested in our well-being.


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