Presence and Presents

“We convince by our presence.”  —Walt Whitman

During the holidays, when my kids were growing up, instead of giving them gifts, I used to write them letters reflecting my perspective on their growth over the past year. I wanted to let them know I had noticed how much they had grown and how grateful I was for their presence in my life. And I hoped that my presence in their lives was more important than any presents I might buy for them.

Just to be clear, I’m differentiating between “presents” and “presence” as nouns, not as verbs. As a verb, to present means to show something or give something. Presence is not a verb, but, as a noun, it means a state of being, a personal space, or how someone carries him or herself. While not a verb, presence does, however, require action to be effective.

So, if you are wondering what presents to give to all of your family and friends this holiday season, you may want to consider just giving them your time and presence.

Title: trust issues | Credit: Yumi Krum
Title: trust issues | Credit: Yumi Krum | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The people we care about are worth far more than a new toy, a new phone, or even a new car. And yet, we are often tempted to give in to the materialistic frenzy that bombards us this time of year. No matter how large and expensive the gift, however, it can’t make up for lost time and focused attention. When we are completely focused on the person in front of us—no smartphone, no internet, no distractions—it makes a powerful impression. Only when we are fully present can our love, energy, and warmth radiate. And, yes, radiate is a verb.

Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, recently wrote a book entitled Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. In her research, Dr. Cuddy has found that the best predictors of success in “closing a deal” are confidence, comfort level, and passionate enthusiasm. She observes that you can’t fake being present in the long term. In order to convince others of our perspectives and possibilities, we first need to convince ourselves. We can only convince ourselves if we feel authentic—not faking, pretending, posing, or posturing. Our authenticity comes from truly believing in ourselves. Presence not only liberates us, it also liberates others. Confidence is contagious.

While I’m sure there are enormous benefits of increasing presence and “closing deals” in our work life, I’m more interested in “opening deals” in our personal life. I will leave the business benefits of presence to Amy Cuddy and Sheryl Sandberg (the best selling author of Lean In and COO of Facebook).

"Illustrated 1970 Ad, Christmas Money, Union Finance Co." Published in Ebony, December 1970 - Vol 26, No. 2
“Illustrated 1970 Ad, Christmas Money, Union Finance Co.” Published in Ebony, December 1970 – Vol 26, No. 2 | Source: Classic Film

To me, presence is bringing all of yourself to each moment—from the top of your head to the tip of your toes. It’s bringing your heart, your mind, your body and your soul to what’s in front of you right now. Presence is hearing the sigh and the silence. It’s being acutely tuned into voice, volume, and tone. It’s hearing not only the isolated note but also the symphonic whole. Presence is seeing the slightest gesture and the boldest move. It’s picking up the subtle cues and picturing the person or moment in context.

Walt Whitman got it right: “We convince with our presence.” We convince others we love them when we look deeply into their eyes and see their beauty. We convince others we care for them when we listen carefully to every word and let them complete their thoughts. We convince others they are safe when we hug them warmly and gently rock them in our arms. We convince others we respect them when we sit quietly beside them and let them express their pain—however they choose to do that. We convince others that they are worthy of our love with our presence and patience. Ultimately, we convince ourselves there is no other.

Presents can’t stack up to presence. The shiniest toy pales in comparison to a genuine smile. The largest gift is overshadowed by the smallest tenderness. The most expensive rug is far less valuable than a no-cost hug.

In this season, I can still get caught up in frantic rush to buy something that communicates the strength of my affection and thoughtfulness. I’m going to give it up this year. While I won’t return to the old days of writing letters to my kids—thus sticking my wife with the challenge of filling the stockings and buying the gifts—I am going to tune up my presence and tone down the presents. Sorry Macy’s.

My grandkids are Jewish so gifts are traditionally given on each day of Hanukkah. I’m pretty sure eight letters from me would not be met with glee-filled enthusiasm. I want to let them know, however, how much I celebrate their lives. Hopefully, I can convince them I love them fully by attending, listening, responding, and hugging them. Being present will be my present. I will let you know if they tell me they would prefer presents to presence next year.

I have a request for anyone who’s reading this. If you liked this post, or any of the other 100 posts on this blog, please share them on your Facebook page. Help me broaden perspectives and heighten possibilities! If these posts are meaningful to you, please invite your friends into these conversations.


Also published on Medium.

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Kelly Z.
Guest
Kelly Z.

This is so true and a much needed message this time of year. Thank you for that!

RonnyDonny
Guest
RonnyDonny
Thank you Ricky for another wonderfully written and meaningful missive, and in perfect timing for the incipient craziness of another holiday season. I will admit some guilt in that since I retired I am not as “present” in my children’s and grandchildren’s lives as I’d like, but the quality of face to face interaction might be higher. Thank God for FaceTime and my kids’ generosity in answering reasonably promptly when I call, or even better if I text!! We are having Cathy’s Jewish kids here together on Marco for Christmas AND Hannukah so I’ll definitely try out “presence” rather than… Read more »
Betsey
Guest
Betsey

Thanks Rick! All so true and well said.

Artie Egendorf, PhD
Guest

Turning poetic, eh Rick? This one moved me to text my kids to set up a meeting time with each. Oh, and I copied and pasted on my FB page, first time ever with one of your posts. Love, hugs, and bravo.

Mark Edwards
Guest
Mark Edwards

Excellent insight Rick. Thank you. Related thought: you have been present in my life since we were close in the late 70s. My brain, like most, retains strong memories from only a few people. Your presence is always there. Thank you.

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