The Gift of Being Present

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The Gift of Being Present

Spending time with family over the holidays requires a lot of intentional effort.  For myself, it begins with taking off from work early in order to get home and pack up for myself and kids.  Then on to loading the van with the precision of the 20th level of Tetris- luggage, gifts, snacks and children fitting with only inches to spare.  After the traditional tug-of-war,  we finally get the kids loaded up and ready to go (except of course for the last minute potty breaks), and we hit the road, at least before the second potty break in 30 minutes.  This is all prerequisite to driving through the wintry southern weather of tornados and thunderstorms.  Nine and a half hours later we arrive at my parents house, exhausted, annoyed and heading straight to bed.
All this work to be with family and I realize the day before we leave that I’m not actually ‘being’ with family.  After all the toil and trouble of travelling to family, giving away the presents we diligently sought out, it dawns on me that I’ve completely neglected to be present with my family.  My desire is to change this holiday tradition, yet I understand just how deeply rooted this practice is for me.  In order to be present I must practice the disciplines of presence.
My hope is to pass along some tips for you and yours to place in your holiday traditions.

  1. Electronics – This is particularly hard in our (so called) connected culture.  I’m not saying to do away with all electronics all the time.  Rather, try to carve out a chunk of time where they’re turned off.  If this isn’t a regular practice in your family, remember that small bites chew easier.  Start with 20 minutes around the dinner table – with all phones, TVs, and computers turned off.
  2. Actively Listen – As you spend time with family and friends, pay attention to what they’re saying.  Again, start small.  Try to set aside 20 minutes of tunnel-vision focus with someone you haven’t spent time with in a while.  Turn towards, make eye contact, and listen for the content of what they’re saying.  While listening, be curious.
  3. Play a Game – If you’re under the age of 15 you might ask, ‘But how can I play a game without electronics being turned on?’  Once more, start small.  Don’t break out the Monopoly board for a 4+ hour epic gaming experience.  Rather, start with the easy to play classics; like checkers, Uno or whatever is fun and age appropriate.
  4. Reminisce – Tell, or retell, the family stories.  You may need to jog your memory with family movies or picture albums.  If you have a hard time of where to start, begin by telling the faithful standards – those stories about so and so that always get a laugh, or at least a grin.
  5. Do a Project – This is great particularly if there are kids around.  My 7 year old son asked for a pile of wood for Christmas, and I think it’s basically because he loves the time, touch, and talk of working on a project together.  Most big box stores sell project kits for building little cars if you’re in a pinch.
  6. Cook – In my family the kitchen is becoming more and more the central place of connectedness.  Break out the family recipes and bring in everyone to have a part.  (This can also be applied to the clean-up)

Today for instance, actually as I was in the middle of writing this, my grandparents stopped by my parents house for a visit.  Simply by being present (attentive and not distracted) I was able to hear my 77 year old grandpa tell stories I’ve never heard before – about his summer’s spent on his grandparents farm as a kid, the summer where he spent all his pocket money and didn’t have enough for the bus ride back home, his time in the Navy, or what it was like to be my age with young kids.
I write this as a reminder to myself to be more intentional about my presence this year with family, rather than focusing solely on those presents I give and receive.  Remember, your presence is a gift which doesn’t require 8 Double A’s or break on the ride home.
How will you be present with those you spend time with this Holiday Season?
Now, with much pleasure, I power off this computer to head outside to build a toy car with my kids and their grandparents.
– Branden Henry