Presence and Absence: 1

I have long been nostalgic about presence. Nothing lingers for me like it. Nothing dissolves the sense of distance between me and another person like it, and nothing makes me feel alive and at one within myself in the way it does. There is, consequently, nothing that I value more highly than experiences of presence and the possibilities of authentic encounter associated with them. But I know I am not unique in this. The longing for presence may, in fact, be the most basic human desire.

Freud tells the story of a three-year-old boy crying in a dark room of a home he was visiting one evening.  “Auntie,” the boy cried, “talk to me! I’m frightened because it is so dark.”  His aunt answered him from another room: “What good would that do?  You can’t see me.”  “That doesn’t matter”, replied the child. “When you talk, it gets light”. What this child was afraid of was not the dark but the absence of someone he loved.  What he needed to feel secure was presence.  We all need the same and knowing presence is the ground of this basic sense of safety for all of us.

There are few things more important in life than presence. It is no exaggeration to say that it is essential for human survival and thriving. Think, for example, of the infant’s basic need of the presence of an available and attentive caregiver.  But while infants need to be fed and cared for it is alarmingly clear that this can be offered in minimalist ways that leaves the infant fed but not nurtured. Infants need more than food to thrive. In order to develop psychologically and spiritually they also need steady, dependable, loving presence. Seeing ourselves reflected in the loving eyes of someone gazing at us as we gaze at them is the indispensable foundation of psychospiritual health and maturity.

In the absence of this reflective mutuality of the presence of someone who is totally present to them, people go through life somewhat like that little boy in the story told by Freud. They may no longer cry out in the dark but the distress they experience when confronted with threats of absence can involve almost unimaginable levels of existential panic.  Knowing the gift of someone who is fully present to us is, therefore, the foundation of the subsequent ability to tolerate absence.  And it is also the foundation of our ability to be present to our self and to others.

Adapted from my forthcoming book Presence and Encounter
(Brazos Press – September, 2014) ©Dr. David G. Benner

photo by Jack Low/Tumblr

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