The Power of Physical Presence

If someone were to ask me about it, I’d tell you that of course being physically present in someone’s life is important – especially my husband, my close friends, and my family. But if one were to scan my life looking for chunks of unstructured time that I just spend with people I cared about, that time would be few and far between, to my shame. It is way easier for me to schedule a meeting, an hour-long coffee date, or simply be “too busy” for a getaway.

But I read this article today and was a bit convicted by my propensity to hurry along and get to the next thing without stopping to just spend time with someone. I’m often ruled by efficiency and my to-do list and “leisure” frequently reminds me of the word “lazy.” 

The writer of the article says this about his yearly family vacations:

“I used to think that shorter would be better, and in the past, I arrived for these beach vacations a day late or fled two days early, telling myself that I had to when in truth I also wanted to — because I crave my space and my quiet, and because I weary of marinating in sunscreen and discovering sand in strange places. But in recent years, I’ve showed up at the start and stayed for the duration, and I’ve noticed a difference.

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

We delude ourselves when we say otherwise, when we invoke and venerate “quality time,” a shopworn phrase with a debatable promise: that we can plan instances of extraordinary candor, plot episodes of exquisite tenderness, engineer intimacy in an appointed hour.

We can try. We can cordon off one meal each day or two afternoons each week and weed them of distractions. We can choose a setting that encourages relaxation and uplift. We can fill it with totems and frippery — a balloon for a child, sparkling wine for a spouse — that signal celebration and create a sense of the sacred.

And there’s no doubt that the degree of attentiveness that we bring to an occasion ennobles or demeans it. Better to spend 15 focused, responsive minutes than 30 utterly distracted ones.

But people tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.”

We won’t know people unless we spend time with them. We won’t know their doubts, their struggles, the bright times or the dark times if we don’t physically sit next to them and spend unhurried time with another. Jesus created us for community, for this knowing, yet I often miss out on it.

My husband and I have been talking about this a lot the past few days, and for us, one thing this looks like practically is that we schedule a weekly date night (or lunch, etc.). If we don’t schedule it, it doesn’t happen, because once our son is in bed and we close our computers for the day, we are tired and babysitters are expensive and we’re not always in the mood to go out (or to start up an intense game of battleship because Sherlock is great, but doesn’t always help us to really interact with each other). It’s something we’ve been realizing about ourselves lately: we’re in a busy season and we just need time together. But when we sit in this time and aren’t just rushing to the next thing, we know each other better.

Maybe it means you decide to drive your kids to school and spend travel time together. Maybe you plan a getaway weekend with your girlfriends, or even just a night to cook together. But it’s time that’s worth fighting for, and that’s worth paying the babysitter, and that’s worth planning for and scheduling in because, like this writer wrote, people don’t tend to operate on cue, and we “bloom at unpredictable” times. I need some more unpredictable times in my life.

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