“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.” (Henri Nouwen)
Many people, myself included, value love above all else. Love is at the center of Jesus’ great commandments to love God and to love others as ourselves. What exactly does it mean to love, though? After all, there many different meanings to the term “love.” For example, as I discuss in this post, in a close relationship, “love” could mean an erotic attraction, an experience of intimacy, or a decision to do what is best for a relationship or another person.
I won’t address all of these issues in this post. However, I would like to note what has become one important aspect of love for me: The love shown in being fully present with another.
As Nouwen acknowledged, loving others in this manner is difficult. In our culture, in particular, it is normal to become preoccupied with busyness in multiple areas of life. Even if we are in the physical presence of someone, it is difficult to let go of our various concerns to be fully present. To a large extent, then, the problem of being fully present with others is blocked by various self-oriented concerns that we, frankly, care more about. Sure, we might say that we love others, but when it comes right down to it, our behavior and thought life do not demonstrate the reality of this kind of love, in particular. Because of this, spiritual work often must be done in order to be physically and truly psychologically present with another. In certain ways, we need more freedom to love in this way.
However, as Nouwen notes in the quotation above, there is something powerful about being present with people in daily life, in conversation, and in play that we would do well to further explore and work toward. Related to this, I often think about a question posed by one of Nouwen’s closest friends, Parker Palmer: How do I honor the identity and integrity of those that today cross my path?” To a large extent, I believe the answer to this question is to be fully attentive to others. There is a special challenge in doing this with those closest to me, such as my wife and kids. However, these are the people that need my attention the most. Furthermore, in a Jesus-centered life, this kind of attention should be extended also to strangers and perceived “enemies” in daily life.
Beyond this, it appears that there may be a special kind of therapeutic effect of being present with those who are struggling. Consistent with this, the noted psychologist, Carl Rogers, emphasized in his work that people seem to almost naturally work through difficulties and develop themselves when in the presence of someone who empathizes with their experiences and sincerely accepts them.
From a Christian perspective, the presence of God in us can make this more possible. Consider, for instance, a prayer that a Christian colleague of mine recently shared from the devotional, “Jesus Calling.” She believed that this mindset was essential to her work with patients. I think it could be extended to almost any relationship.
“Learn to listen to Me even while you are listening to other people. As they open their souls to your scrutiny, you are on holy ground. You need the help of My Spirit to respond appropriately. Ask Him to think through you, live through you, love through you. . . If you respond to others’ needs through your unaided thought processes, you offer them dry crumbs. When the Spirit empowers your listening and speaking, My streams of living water flow through you to other people. Be a channel of my love, joy, and peace by listening to Me as you listen to others.”