I’m writing this a week after Black Friday/Cyber Monday, the US discount-frenzy that’s firmly planted itself into British culture. I’d like to say I was immune but, with Christmas fast approaching, I bought a couple of gifts for friends and loved ones. Hey, I’m human.
It’s hard to know what to give people, though. Most of us have too much stuff already. And, because it’s been hard for us to meet up for a while, I know that I’m in danger of exchanging physical objects with some friends in lieu of physical presence.
It sucks, because what often really makes people feel loved is presence, not presents (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
As Viral Mehta, co-founder of ServiceSpace.org noted, when he was part of an experiment to hand out 150 bagged lunches in downtown Chicago,
Some would heartily accept, but then quickly move on; others would outright refuse the meal; some didn’t even have the mental faculties to process it; and others would engage with us and even be moved to tears.
But we were the ones learning the lessons. My most vivid memory is of seeing an African-American man waiting to cross the street. He must’ve been in his late 40s, had on a leather jacket and something told me he might appreciate a meal. As we approached each other, before I could even say a word, he’d held his hand out, wanting to shake my hand.
I shook his hand and he gave me a big, heartfelt hug, saying, “Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked him. I hadn’t even offered him the lunch yet.
His response rocked me. “For caring. I’ve been out of a job for four months, just scraping by on the streets. And everyone walks by and no one even looks me in the eye. Just the way you looked at me, I could tell you cared.”
Our physical presence can impact others in a way few physical objects can, due to the sheer nature of personal interaction. When we’re in relationship with another, a third entity is created; the relationship itself. And, as Maya Angelou put it,
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Of course, not everyone makes us feel great. It’s a painful part of life but how someone made you feel (or, how you felt in their presence) can be at the heart of many estrangements – especially family ones, which can feel harder to deal with during the festive season.
I know this truth personally. I was estranged from my father for twenty years, with the only updates arriving in the last five via their local social services, asking for my permission to admit them under the Mental Health Act (they were diagnosed with bipolar several years ago).
My father was a complex, challenging, charming, volatile, intense, troubled individual who experienced a great deal of trauma during their childhood, and who experienced the unhealed effects thereafter, I’m sad to say.
Three weeks ago a policeman appeared at my door, and I learnt that my father had died.
I take comfort in knowing that they did so where they were happiest, by the sea, in a seaside community which took their final year’s name and gender change in their stride (hence my choice of gender-neutral pronouns), beside the dog they loved, finally transitioning into the gender they chose.
As I process their death and the memories it’s triggered, I’m seeing once more how their presence during my childhood cast a long shadow over much of my adult life; unhealed trauma can, sadly, beget further trauma, triggering a profound sense of isolation for all concerned.
But a loving presence can evaporate that sense of separation.
Sometimes it’s completely unintentional. I attended a weekend retreat recently with the non-duality teacher James Eaton and as soon as I opened the door, the organiser lit up and exclaimed, “It’s YOU!!” Apparently she had been with her family at a local restaurant at the same time as I was meeting a friend, and my distinctive, loud, infectious laughter had inspired curiosity, delight and joy in them, too.
And when loving presence is offered intentionally, it can be transformative. I’ve seen this happen at the Museum of Happiness, where the loving and playful atmosphere gives people permission to feel child-like joy.
At James’s event, there was an even more deliberate, more focused, intention. Through guided meditations we were lead to realise that we’re pure consciousness given form so it can take a look at itself. It’s powerful to understand that our true self is not held within the emotions or sense impressions we experience, the thoughts we think, or the physical form we take.
By being fully present with each of us, inviting and maintaining caring eye contact, mirroring and encouraging us to be present with any unwanted aspect of ourselves as if it were a frightened child, James offered a doorway to a tremendous gift.
The gift of experiencing the peace, joy, tenderness and aliveness within.
It’s that really good feeling we all tend to seek outside of ourselves, through achievements, possessions, experiences or validation by others.
We think it’s out there. But the gift is in here, all the time, hidden beneath layers of wrappings and trappings. Only ever a thought away.
“If you want to help people, you can help them a little bit with what’s going on in their lives, but if you really want to help people, show them a whole new world and they’ll help themselves.”
What a gift we can reveal to each other, through our loving presence this season.