It happens every year. Certain words or phrases become popular and they are repeated over and over. Well for 2018, one phrase actually resonated with me: be present.
At first glance, it’s pretty feel-good and simple. My first response was even a little “Well, duh.” I mean, how hard can it be? Be present, a.k.a be where you are, with the people around you, etc.
And the more I chewed on it, the more I realized I struggle with this one. Oh, so much…
We’ve all heard the complaint…
“…those young kids, with all their texting and twittering and Facebooking…they don’t know how to have a conversation with someone right in front of them!” Yeah, that one. But I think it goes so much further than the typical vexation with the younger, technologically-inclined generation.
In my case, I’m a multi-tasker and problem solver. Maybe some of that was trained into me from my 9-1-1 dispatching days. Any given night I could be working a high-priority police incident from my radio console, while keeping track of other lower-priority incidents on my computer screen and even planning my grocery list for the next day.
I’m not saying that level of split attention is a good thing, but it’s how I (and most emergency dispatchers) roll. Even in my non-working life, I’m always off in my own head trying to figure out how to work on or fix something.
And how does that apply to being present?
It means I’m very good at being present physically, but not mentally.
And in this case, it’s safe to say we’re talking about being physically and mentally present. Living in the now, or to use another word, being available.
I’ve been chewing on this concept for about a year now. I’ve even sought opportunities to grow myself and try to learn what it really means to be present. For example, some family was visiting last spring. I remember thinking to myself, “What a great opportunity to practice being present. Maybe I’ll finally get it.”
It didn’t happen.
Then I had a series of technology mishaps that first hindered, then completely stopped my work for a whole week. Surely this would be the opportunity I needed to understand being present! Right?
And let’s not forget the daily grind. Moments of multitasking — or blatant distraction — that mutate into ugly monsters where I’m not present. The next thing I know, my toddler has written on my laptop with pens and ripped up my paperwork.
Why is being present so darned hard?
Well, I’m going to air out some dirty laundry here. When I take a good, hard, introspective look at why my mind always wanders and why I feel figuring out all those other little problems is more important comes down to one key issue: contentment.
In my case, I see my agenda as more important than living in the moment. That it is worth my constant attention because I’m discontent with a circumstance or situation. It’s not that being present with those around me is an intentional refusal of relationship. But it is a form of self-love that is selfish.
When you take that introspective look, maybe your drive isn’t discontentment. Maybe it’s a sense of importance, being needed or considered invaluable. In Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence Others, he described the feeling of importance as one of humanity’s greatest drives. And sometimes we fulfill that need by fulfilling our agendas. Or we get it from engagement on platforms such as social media, texting, businesses, etc. And it’s easier to fulfill that need remotely than to lay it down for a few moments.
That being said, I’m realizing being present isn’t a magical switch you can flip on and off.
It’s a process. And it takes practice. In the same way we train our brains to multitask, we need to train our brains to let things go for a little while.
I’m learning how to re-program my brain to focus on the person in front of me, instead of constantly trying to multi-task. Sometimes that means I have to schedule specific time to get things done, so those tasks aren’t always in the back of my mind. Sometimes it means abandoning my agenda altogether and choosing to be content in my situation. And sometimes it means I stop putting my own desire for importance first and spend some time showing another person they are valuable in my life.