The gift of presence
An older gentleman in Starbucks this morning kindly advised me to avoid breaking my wrist, nodding toward the brace on his hand as proof that he was an expert on such matters. I laughed and told him I'd try my best, at which point he went into great detail about how he had injured himself in a recent mountain biking accident. He then showed me some of the scars he has collected over the years and noted that they were the reason he had to settle for doing "stupid safe shit" (such as mountain biking, I suppose) in his old age. When he was through with his inventory, he sighed and said, "You've probably broken a few bones during this journey of life, so you know how it is." Then he put his hand on my shoulder and said, "As beautiful as you are, I'm sure you've broken a few hearts at least."
I had to overlook some things about this interaction to be sure. Like the fact that the heart is not a bone or that the man was carrying a white cane. . .Still, I was happy to oblige his flirtation. There was an undercurrent of loss to his voice that resonated with me, fond as I am of all things melancholy. I knew that he was really asking me to see him, to picture more than just an old man in a coffee shop; he was asking me see the entirety of his life, to imagine who he was in his more daring and virile youth. We all seem to be starving for real human interaction these days, to be genuinely seen and heard. We live hyper-connected but isolated lives. If I can do nothing else to combat this sense of isolation, I can at least offer people my full attention and my whole heart. When a stranger strikes up a conversation, I always engage.
Once, again while in the coffee line, a man behind me took note of my USAA card and asked how I was affiliated with the military. I wasn’t in a very social mood at the time, and I had considered giving a terse reply and letting my body language do the rest of the talking. However, he mentioned that his son was stationed at Ft. Rucker, which I knew was a hub for Army aviation, so I engaged. I asked if his son flew helicopters for the Army. He did, in fact, and this man could not have been more pleased to spend a few moments putting his pride for his son on full display. I was unexpectedly filled with joy to witness this.
On another day, I ran into an acquaintance who I knew was deep into the preschool years with her children, ones that tend to swallow up a mother’s sense of self. I leaned into that and asked how she was getting on in life, not the mama part or the wife part or the preschool president part but how the selfhood part was getting on, and she began to cry. We hugged and talked and shared pieces of ourselves on the sidewalk of our city and then went on about our day, feeling heard and understood. On any given day, I might encounter several people who wind up crying in my presence, not because I have asked anything particularly personal, but because I have asked about them—the real them—at all. This is engagement. This is connection. This is what we’re missing.
I came to understand real isolation when my husband was deployed to Kyrgyzstan years ago, leaving me to care for our infant son alone. I relied on the kindness of strangers to see me through the lonely days and months. My conversations with grocery store clerks and baristas often extended beyond the typical pleasantries that are expected of such interactions, which I was conscious of, but no one ever denied me that one thing I was clearly desperate for: connection. It is such a fundamental human need that we instinctively turn toward any opportunity to connect. That is why I am always talking to strangers, a secular ministry of sorts, tending to the unspoken sorrows so many people carry with them and sharing in joy when it is offered to me.
Recently, I was thinking about how to characterize what I do with my life beyond the typical work-related responses, and I came up with this: I create spaces for authentic connections through meaningful conversation. And I think this is what I do by my nature. I save space. I leave pretense behind. I show up.
Showing up. Is this what a purposeful life is built on? I’ve been struggling with the impossible questions lately, ones about meaning and purpose that we all seem to come to around middle age—maybe earlier for those with a philosophical bent—but no matter what ideas I toy with for how to live, I always land on this fundamental principle of presence: presence in and gratitude for the moment, presence with the people around me, presence in the work of each day. These interactions with strangers, ones that can often feel like sacred moments of communion, have helped me to understand that a life of purpose is a life of presence. And I will keep showing up for it.