The Art of Active Presence

I think it started when my family went downtown one Christmas to hand out clementines, chocolate and pocket change to people on the street. It was Christmas day and it was honestly the last thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be cozied up in my own house but my parents had decided we were going to spend the day in Toronto, giving some small gifts to people who otherwise wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas that year. It was probably my first tangible interaction with a socio-economic divide. I was choked.

I internalized the unfairness of the whole situation. My little brain was a flurry of questions:
Why had I been born into the family I was? How come adults weren’t saving these people? Why were the people we met alone and in the cold on Christmas day? If I just refused to get back into the car and go home with my family, what would happen? Why weren’t we taking our new friends home with us?

I was suddenly revolted by the wealth I was surrounded by at home. I became extremely inwardly judgmental of myself and my friends, because how could we live in our houses with our toys when such disparity existed just a short drive from us? How come we could sing happy songs at church when people were crying on the street?

The imbalance in my brain was overwhelming. I became self-loathing and apathetic because what right did I have as a young, white, middle-class young woman to raise awareness about anything socially/politically/environmentally that I felt was unfair in my own life experience? How could anyone take Christians seriously when they weren’t solving these basic world issues?

Who would listen to anything I had to say when my own story had been so peachy compared to others?

I think the biggest disservice I ever did myself was to silence the voice I had because I didn’t belong to the right demographic.

I grew to believe that advocacy was something I could only participate in if I belonged to a more marginalized minority, which maybe is true. Sometimes I think the world actually needs less advocates and more allies.

I’ve always been comfortable with the idea of conflict, and I have always believed I have something important to say. But if anything, Jesus’ life demonstrates an innate ability to walk the fine line of participation and observation. He was aware of what was going on socially at every turn, but often his simple act of drawing in the sand or allowing his feet to drown in a woman’s tears required minimal effort.

Why do we consistently feel lost for words when faced with the world’s crises? Why is our first reaction to “say something” in response to someone else’s pain?

It happens all the time. It’s the story of Job all over again. Something absolutely sucks for someone and we have to say, “Wow, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say, that must be really hard, blah blah blah”.

Even prior to action, I think the simplicity of experiencing the situation is necessity. We need to be empathizers before we are helpers. Job’s friends really could have taken their feet out of their mouths by just keeping them shut. No words required, just presence. Just the act of presence, or active presence. 

Fast forward to university where I became involved in a ministry that practiced the simple art of hot chocolate giving on Friday nights in Vancouver. We would walk around, have conversation with anyone who wanted a cuppa, and although it was sometimes nerve wracking, we weren’t solving any problems. Sometimes I was cynical about our effectiveness or about the cyclical nature of the ongoings of a city’s street culture, but at the end of the day it was just about being present.

In the city, on the streets, with very little to give. Being kind to whoever is around. Sounds like Jesus to me.