BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
A couple of weeks ago, my daughter asked me what she should get her boyfriend for Valentine’s Day. “What do guys like?” she inquired.
I thought about her question for a minute or so, and then I replied, “Start with your undivided attention. What guys like best is for someone to pay attention in the midst of all the distractions, hassles, and complexities of life. Presence is the first and best gift that you can give. Everything else is just a token of that basic commitment.”
In fact, all people desire the fullness of presence of someone who cares. To give our full attention to the life and being of another is the definition of love that forms the foundation of our human community.
Sadly, we often discount the value of our being present to one another. We become conditioned to measure the value of life in terms of achievement. We think that the ability to produce, to earn, and to spend is what defines our humanity, and we treat each other as either obstacles or tools to that end. We find ourselves rushing through the progressions of life, but not being fully present even to ourselves, let alone to anyone else. We end up abandoning the opportunity to be fully present to those who matter most to us.
Even in our political and social lives, we fail to recognize the value of being fully present to people who desire our understanding more than our problem solving skills. A decade and a half ago, I visited the country of El Salvador as part of a Canadian church delegation participating in a global commemoration of the martyrdom of that country’s spiritual leader, Archbishop Oscar Romero. Everywhere that we went in the country, we were received as heroes, simply because we came to hear and to pay attention to the people’s stories of suffering and resilience. As I looked around at the thousands who had gathered for a vigil in front of the national cathedral in San Salvador, I wondered about the absence of those who had made such an issue of the war in Central America all those years ago. Where were the celebrities and leaders who had spoken so strongly on the issue? Where were my friends who had urged me to action? Had they moved on to other issues more worthy of their attention, and forgotten the people who continued to struggle with the demons of those years of conflict?
No one likes to be treated as an issue or a cause, or a problem in need of a solution. What a hurting world needs is the full and undivided attention of people who care. We may not be able to solve many or any of the world’s problems, but if we can be fully present to those who are suffering, then we might be able to help to make their suffering bearable and their lives meaningful.
In our own country aboriginal peoples have been treated as problems in need of a solution since before Canada even existed as a country. We seem to be locked into this perpetual cycle of making grand promises to set things right in our relationship, only to abandon our commitments when a more pressing “issue” comes along. Without our being fully present to each other as people, we can never hope to resolve the “issue” of the marginalization of aboriginal people.
Being present to one another fulfills the deepest purpose of our humanity. It overcomes injustice and marginalization. It enables us to participate in what some of us name as the essence of the Divine. As the very definition of love, it is the greatest gift that we can give to each other no matter what the season.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.