It was just going to be one of those days. Every patient had on more thing he wanted to discuss, telephone messages were piling up, and I was falling farther behind. I remember walking into a room and feeling relieved that my patient’s health problem (I’m a physician) was straightforward for a change. While my treatment of the medical condition went well, I can’t say the same about how I treated the patient. I rushed through the visit and focused on getting to the next person ASAP. As I stepped out of the room, I remember thinking, “What am I doing?”
Treating People Like Objects
While time pressure and stressors can aggravate a tendency to ignore people and treat them like objects, we still do it when we’re not under the gun. Consider situations like going through the check-out line at the store, interacting with a server in a restaurant, or the way we drive in traffic. Do you carry on one or more text conversations while you’re speaking with someone else? Is the customer service rep on the phone only a means to an end, or do you think of her as a child of God and wonderfully made?
A Different Approach
In his Letter to the Philippians, we read how the apostle Paul was stuck in prison. His friends in Philippi had been praying for him and had sent him one of their own (Epaphroditus) to be with him for support. Let’s look at Paul’s response:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I may be cheered by news of you. I have no one like him, who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare. They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. I hope therefore to send him just as soon as I see how it will go with me; and I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself shall come also.
First of all, the Philippians could have just sent a letter to Paul telling him how much they cared and were praying for him. But they wanted to be with Paul; to be physically present to him.
Paul was grateful for the Philippians, and he expresses his gratitude in his letter. This wasn’t just a “Thank-You” card in the mail. Writing wasn’t enough for Paul, either. He wanted to be with them, and as he was in prison, he set out to do the next best thing: he sent Timothy. Timothy was like a son to Paul, and he cared about the Philippians. Paul closes with a promise to come himself once he is able.
The Gift of Presence
I believe part of Paul’s effectiveness as an evangelist was his gift of being present to people. Sure, folks back in the 1st century didn’t have cell phones, and life was less complex and slower. But I think the temptation to treat people superficially isn’t limited to our era. Paul could not have been like that.
What is the gift of presence? It’s giving our full attention to the other person in that moment. It requires listening, but sometimes we have things to say, too; like giving feedback or telling our side of the story. Two rules apply: focus only on the other person and be authentic.
With the gift of presence, our non-verbal behavior is often more important than what we say. We’re present to others through our eye contact, posture, the expression on our face, the way we lean toward the other person in expectation and genuine interest.
Presents AND Presence!
In this Advent season, let us make an effort to give the people we meet a gift of presence. Maybe it will be the cashier at the check-out, the clerk in the store, your co-workers, the waitress in the restaurant, or your family. The gift of presence could turn out to be the best present we give!