Are We Present? - Rahil Patel

14 July 2021

The British Museum in London, United Kingdom, is a public establishment dedicated to human history, art, and culture. Its permanent collection of approximately eight million works is among the largest and most comprehensive in existence. It was the first public national museum in the world. As it holds pieces collected during the British Empire, some aspects of the British Museum carry an interesting concoction of controversy. Well, for some at least. But that’s a fun story for another time!

A few years ago, I was nonchalantly meandering through this vast and complex labyrinth of history and wisdom when I was swiftly lured to a section of watches made during the Early Modern Period (1500-1780 AD). My mind abruptly transitioned from wandering to wonder! Each piece was absolutely exquisite and ornate that I could hardly believe my eyes.

The closer I looked, the more detail was revealed. It was as if each watch was inviting me into spending quality time with it. Interesting, I thought.

But as I earnestly drank in the stunning detail of one particular watch, I felt that my heart was being nudged to the next piece. I knew I was not finished spending quality time with that specific watch, but a surge of an urge ‘to move on to the next piece and see them all’ took siege. Suddenly and subsequently, my restless mind ricocheted from piece to piece without any peace as I felt compelled ‘to see them all’!

The next two to three hours saw me distractedly prancing around the museum ‘not wanting to miss out on anything’ at the end of which, the only item I could remember vividly was Cleopatra’s mummy! I had covered all the area I could with the time at hand, but enjoyed nothing whatsoever…and forfeited the beauty of individual detail.

Some of us are acutely aware of catching ourselves when we feel the urge to ‘move on to the next thing,’ especially when something profound is still staring at us square in the face. This compulsion, however, is heightened when we are confronted with extensive choices where each available attraction is equal in measure of beauty or importance.
I find it quite easy to be fully present with a friend or colleague when there is no one else in the room! Now, If I am at a friend’s wedding, birthday party or any other form of social gathering where there are many people in the vicinity, equally important to my heart, it’s a prodigious challenge to be present and pay attention to the intricate details the person in front of me is sharing. I’m tempted to think, whom do I need to meet next?’ Being fully present in the midst of an array of attractive or distracting choices is an onerous discipline to master and yet the conquest of such a feat yields bountiful results.

Garnering trust, building bridges for a deeper connection or creating a safe space for people to fully and freely express themselves all relentlessly cry out and demand for an uncompromising heart and mind that is fully present.
The widely acclaimed author, academic and theologian Tim Keller insightfully says,’ not only do people want to feel loved, but they also want to feel known.’ At work, at home or anywhere there is human interaction, people ultimately hunger to ‘be known’ whether they can articulate and express it or not. Healthy friendships, fruitful work environments and successful teams are the results of paying unhindered attention to the ‘whole’ person in front of us and that is core to the art of a leadership coach.

In a world riddled with never-ending choices and instantly available distractions, we see the overall attention span of society on a slow and steady decline. Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, states that a simple 30-second distraction on Twitter derails our mental focus for a further 30 minutes.

‘Wanting to see it all’ and the ‘fear of missing out’ are tendencies that are interlinked, producing an ongoing distraction that disallows us access to the beauty, detail and wisdom in front of us. And to justify such restless tendencies, we have foolishly convinced ourselves that if we pretend to be focused on the person in front of us, they will be reassured. This is not true. Furthermore, we cannot surmise, in that self-deceived state of pretense, that we can help or serve anyone fully if we have not offered our full and undivided attention.

A work colleague, friend or family member will feel immensely loved, acknowledged and honoured if we give our all during the few minutes we have with them. Superficially nodding our heads, falsely frowning our brows, or fixing our eyes pretentiously are all unable to fool the heart of the person before you.

In Psalm 46, we read the words, “Be still and know that I am God.” It suggests that a still heart and mind is able to fully enjoy the face of God. This is what ‘knowing’ here means. It is the same for His people in front of us. Practice and be still…practice and be present and we might be surprised with an undiscovered depth of joy that fills our daily encounters with people.

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