The Absence of Presence by Bill Holmes

The Absence of Presence

It is now our turn to confess that we no longer know what presence means.

– Ralph Harper, On Presence: Variations and Reflections

Margaret had just been told she had metastatic cancer. At the oncologist request and with Margaret’s permission, I sat at her bedside listening to her story. Her husband, three children and two in-laws rested around the room. Only two appeared to be listening to what she had to say. The other four were staring at their smartphones; they were tuned into Facebook, checking emails, or texting.

At her hour of greatest need, some of her family was in a cyberspace, a virtual world, or ironically on a “social network.” Their bodies were in the room but their attention was elsewhere; they were not truly present to Margaret. There was an absence of presence.

By presence I mean not only our bodies being in spatial relationship to each other but also our full awareness of what is happening and being communicated both verbally and non-verbally. Real human presence is experienced by all the senses. We see each other with all of our wrinkles and scars; we hear each other with all our intonations and nuances; we touch each other with a touch that we have hopefully known before or will know again. Even our sense of smell might identify the scent of significant people in our lives, even before we see or hear them.

Unfortunately not being present to our immediate surroundings but being consumed by our technology and “virtual realty” is not uncommon in many contexts today. I have seen it at ballgames, concerts, lectures, while driving, and, yes, even in during times of worship.

While there are some good things about social media, preoccupation with them can become a poor substitute for real presence, for face-to-face interactions. In scripture “face to face” implies presence including a presence of God where one is truly known and loved.

In this day of virtual “realities” are we even capable of seeing each other face-to-face, much less see God face to face? For some intimacy and real presence is not even possible, as we are focused on the virtual, preoccupied by self-preservation, and devoid of all notions of presence.

At his point in my life I have sat in the presence of too many dying friends bearing witness to the both verbal and non-verbal communication to be dissuaded from the idea of the absolute necessity for our very real, not virtual, presence to each other. We cannot afford to be dismissive or take lightly that which is communicated by a grasped hand, a breathing pattern, an intonation, a look, and the ineffable experience of just being there. It is in the face-to-face encounter that we find presence that overcomes loneliness and darkness.

In our age of virtual everything, our sense of the presence of God and of presence to each other seem to have diminished. Sherry Turkle in her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, observes that technology has offered us a substitute for face-to-face connection. And we have bought into it as we have let technology redefine the boundaries between intimacy and solitude. Rather than investing our selves in others, rather than getting to know each other face-to-face, we build a list of Facebook friends and then wonder if they are really friends and what that means.  As we “recreate ourselves as on-line personae” and avoid real-time happenings as they may take too much time, we may find ourselves feeling utterly alone.

Knowing each other and God intimately takes investment of time and our selves without which we may be more absent than present.