“It is not good that man should be alone.”—Genesis
I do not think this statement is controversial. Constitutive of a happy and satisfied life is living in the presence of those we love. Consistently.
Perhaps this is most obvious in younger children. They simply want to be together with a small number of people—most of all their family. Yes, they can get used to absence, and so can we all. But it will wear on us, taking its toll.
Here is a remarkable, real conversation that occurred between my wife and our daughter Josefina when she was four-years-old:
Josie: “Does Jesus have magical powers so he could go up to heaven?”
Mama: “Jesus was able to ascend to heaven because he is God, and God can do anything.”
Josie: “You mean, he can even touch a star?”
Mama: “Yes, he can do anything.”
Josie: “He can even come here and be with us?”
Mama: “Yes. As a matter of fact, Jesus said wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”
Josie: “That means Jesus is here with us now. Does that mean if Jesus were going to work, and I asked him to stay and help me do the puzzle, he would just turn around and stay and help me?”
Tears are in my eyes as I relate this. I think what most strikes me is that I would never have guessed that she would say this, or that she was experiencing what she was experiencing. As a child gets older, he or she becomes even less inclined to express such things.
Certain separations in life will, of course, be necessary, and we and our children have to be able to deal with them. But that said, I am convinced that we would do well to turn a critical eye to the patterns of our lives and examine them in view of the fundamental importance of presence. Herein, I think, we will discover a root source of stress and suffering, for ourselves and for others, especially our children.
What struck my daughter as perhaps most magical of all is that her Daddy not leave her. I do not intend this reflection to be an exercise in self-flagellation, but I am struck with how, in any case, I was unaware of something so important: my child’s experience of my presence and absence.
It seems to me that we need to grapple, especially today, with a reasonable and pressing need on the part of our children, though they may seldom express or even consciously recognize it. Children ‘need’—in some important sense of that word—regular and meaningful interaction with both parents, even if in unequal quantities, and they need to experience such presence as the normal and dependable context of their day-to-day existence.
We might then ask: Are we sufficiently intentional in making presence a priority? We can begin by identifying the structures in our life that militate against it or make it especially hard to achieve. For instance, patterns of work and school, and even recreation, such as sports, often make it difficult simply to live in the presence of the members of our own household. We find ourselves swept along in a daily schedule that seems as inexorable as it is exclusive of real quality time.
Ironically, and perhaps tragically, the kinds of activities in which people are most naturally present to one another—such as eating together, working together, or relaxing together—are precisely the actions most often squeezed out of our busy schedules.
The problem. of course, is not limited to family households. The living patterns of singles and of the elderly tend likewise to be isolated and isolating. In general, we do not expect our lives to intersect with others in significant and consistent ways.
Our habitual use of technologies of communication and entertainment, among other technologies, have well-documented, chilling effects on our personal presence (see, for instance, Jean Twenge’s piece here and Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation). What might be less obvious is how for many of us—and here again one thinks especially, though not exclusively of children—such practices also serve to mask, while they amplify, our isolation and unhappiness. What is masked becomes more difficult to address.
Even if some of these things are beyond our mending, others are surely within our power to change. We can begin by putting first things first in our heart, especially as regards to being present to and really living with our loved ones. We will then be more intentional about presence and seek concrete ways of achieving it.
A holistic approach might limit or set aside altogether presence-threatening technologies and practices. Then, it would focus on enhancing the big three contexts of presence in the home: shared work, eating together, and leisure. This requires no special equipment, but it does require intentional effort.
If in the end, we cannot be physically present as much as we—and our loved ones—want, we can still convey to them where our heart is. For where our treasure is, there our heart is truly present. People will feel this. And this in itself will be magical.
John Cuddeback, Ph.D. is chairman and professor of Philosophy at Christendom College. His writing and lectures focus on ethics, friendship, and household. His blog, Bacon From Acorns, is dedicated to the philosophy of household.