After years of interviewing thousands of people, Oprah Winfrey remarked that she had noted a certain quality in her most unforgettable encounters. Presence, she noted, was that quality. A person’s ability to be truly present, genuinely connected, to the person opposite him or her, is what made a lasting impression on the queen of the talk show circuit. Talent is good. Beautiful looks are appealing. A way with words helps. But above and beyond all else is an individual’s sincere interest in his fellow man, an individual’s ability to shut out all distractions, especially the distraction of self, to lock into his neighbor’s world.
Sounds simple enough, but it’s not. Whether we’re on the phone, in instant messaging on the computer, or in an eye-to-eye visitation, there are a million magnets pulling us away from the other person. Timetables and schedules that dictate our lives . . . a natural inclination to talk about me, me, me . . . a selfish disinterest in the welfare of others . . . a judgmental spirit that’s mentally evaluating and criticizing the other’s stance . . . or even something as basic as a grumbling stomach that’s hungrier for physical grub than the soul is hungry to feed the neighbor. Whatever the case, it’s not easy to pay close attention to the people around us, even one individual at a time.
Yet, this ability to be present is vital, not only for the health of our relationships but also for the health of our immortal souls. “Lose yourself and you will find yourself,” Jesus promises. Put another way, Jesus’ words could mean, “Unplug the inner phones and doorbells that are ringing and give your wholehearted attention to the one in your midst. Silence the interior babble and interference in order to listen deeply and completely to each person you meet. Only then will you find who you really are, a child so loved by God that this love overflows to everyone you meet.”
If Oprah ever interviewed you or me, what would be her assessment of our sense of presence? Would she see in our faces that we’re riveted or removed? Deeply intent or distant? Would her conversation with us rank among the unforgettable ones, or would it be superficial and unremarkable? Something to think about . . . how present are we, really, to others?