It’s hard to imagine someone 30 years ago asking what it meant to be “present.” What could people have been if not present? Literally not there, sure, but the difference would have been pretty obvious. Yet now we have to question our being there even when we are actually, you know, there. We go places, but we never leave any place, either—thanks to the long fingers of the screen. We’ve invented ways to be ever elsewhere and, it would seem, have stretched ourselves out to a ghostly thinness. A very modern question: Are we everywhere or nowhere?
Now, our dependence on screens takes quite a beating in some circles. Though our devices promise to multiply our presence, they really divide it from our bodies. as using them has everyone looking down and away from each other. Still, blaming smartphones might miss the point.
The idea of our minds being somewhere else is not new. It’s why we have “daydreaming” in our vocabulary. And daydreaming is why we have so many lovely books in which to get lost for a while. Not many would lay the end of civilization at the feet of a book the way they lay it at the feet of the smartphone. So we have to do some division of our own: We need to separate what makes the screen just another helpful-yet-dangerous thing we came up with, from what makes the screen a soul-sucking monster turning us all into hollow space. The dividing line is our desire.
We feast on our screens. One journalist pointed out that we spend as much time on our Facebook feed as we spend eating meals. The average American has five social media accounts, not counting email and texts. We have become experts at squeezing drops of screen time into any sip of regular life, flipping through the phone while the TV runs, in a waiting room, when the lunch conversation gets boring. All told, more than half of our waking life is spent in front of a screen. That’s an extraordinary measure of desire.
We go places, but we never leave any place, either—thanks to the long fingers of the screen.
It’s ironic that, in turning to these little machines, we turn away from the people with us in the room. We go to our social media feeds because we hunger for connection, but that very real and healthy hunger turns into fear of disconnection. What if someone beats me to the promotion-critical work email? What if someone needs my opinion? It’s a nauseous feeling to want this multiplied presence yet realize you can never sufficiently satisfy its demands. I think such anxiety might just be telling us that we can’t actually manage a divided presence, at least not very well or sustainably.
In that regard, it’s hard to overstate the genius of our body’s design: the combination of one space to occupy and one mind to pay attention with. Though we may cast about, we were made to return to one spot and moment. The glory is that this union, this limitation, creates the highest and best form of our presence. Over the years, my wife and I have had our share of big life changes. Babies born, jobs lost, loved ones gone on. In each season, what I remember is real meals brought by real people, real hugs and real tears. Bodies, hearts, and minds all being there in the funeral home, the hospital room, the maternity ward. Undivided people made joy sweeter and sorrow bearable.
Heed your curiosity. If you’re wondering how someone is doing, ask—face to face, voice to voice.
Probably the best way to cultivate our limited presence is to talk—an art strangely lost in an age drenched with communication. But it is an art worth reviving. Conversation brings our presence home and, because it’s blessedly inefficient, actually allows time for meaningful connections to be made. It requires effort. We have to put ourselves in front of people, and luckily they are everywhere.
So let me close with a modest proposal: Borrow stuff from your neighbors. But instead of reaching for the phone, try reaching for the doorbell. While they’re fetching whatever you asked to borrow, fill the quiet with a simple question. If you’re borrowing a cooking ingredient, maybe ask what’s for dinner in their house. Speaking of dinner, have people over. Invite neighbors to a cookout; have friends over for a meal. Finally, heed your curiosity. If you’re wondering how someone is doing, ask—face to face, voice to voice.
Once we get talking, here are a few habits that can keep the peace. For starters, get used to extending grace. Conversation is unpredictable and sometimes clumsy, so consider it a glory to look past an offense (Prov. 19:11). Second, think of your neighbor as more interesting than yourself and honor him or her by listening (Rom. 12:10; James 1:19). Lastly, avoid talk about people who aren’t there (Prov. 11:13, Prov. 16:28, Prov. 20:19). Nothing silences conversation quite like gossip. Desiring good talk, though, keeps us present. We show up and we stay. We get to know one another. We weep and celebrate together. We come to find out that being there is worth it.
Illustration by Jeff Gregory