The Power of Presence

I’m about to say something I never thought I’d say.

There is something more powerful than the written word. 

Writing is important to me. It helps me process. I’m funnier, smarter, and more expressive on paper than in real life. I communicate my feelings and opinions more clearly and freely when writing because my brain seems to work more harmoniously with my fingers than with my mouth. 

But over the last few months I have also come to appreciate that the written word has its limitations. It can never really be a substitute for the messy, awkward, and sometimes uncomfortable power of presence. Face-to-face presence.

Now, I love being around people. Spending time with friends, laughing and having fun. Commiserating. Talking about big ideas and small nothings. But when it comes to deep feelings and hard topics, I have trouble with the face-to-face. I don’t trust myself to say the right thing. I worry about not being in control of my emotions, good or bad. It’s so much easier to retreat behind a keyboard where I can have more confidence in what I say without the embarrassment of whatever raw emotions I’m feeling being on display. It’s super uncomfortable being real in person.  

But sometimes, that is exactly what you need, as I found out a few days ago. 

I have a friendship I’ve been struggling with. The details of the struggle aren’t really important to this story, but it’s a classic case of two people having different experiences over a shared commonality. Neither of us were wrong, but everything about it felt wrong. And it has been weighing on me. I’m pretty sure I have been letting it take up too much real estate in my brain, instead of focusing on all the relationships in my life that have been so amazingly on point lately (big thanks to all my on-point people!). But there is a reason the good shepherd left his 99 sheep in search of the one he lost. 

The funny thing is I thought I was doing a better job handling this situation than how I normally deal with conflict. That is to say, I didn’t avoid it. I didn’t say what I thought I was supposed to, then pretend to move on until it ended up poisoning either the relationship or myself. I didn’t let my feelings go unsaid. In fact, I not only said my feelings, I practically vomited the entire contents of my emotional bank. Then I went back and vomited more. And then again one more time, just to make sure I had finally reached the point of dry heaves where there was nothing left to say. And I did it all through my preferred method of emotional transaction: I wrote it in emails. On paper, I was a fierce lioness, unafraid to say what she thought, willing to risk whatever consequences came of it.

But in reality, I was terrified. To hit the send button. Then after hitting the send button, of what my friend’s reaction would be. If I would get a response. What that response would say. Then when I got a response, of what was being said between lines. Or if I was creating something between the lines that wasn’t really there. If I was supposed to inflect more or less emotion on that sentence. If we were ever going to get past this. If my friend even cared if we got past it or not. (*This has been your all-inclusive pass into seeing how the sausage is made in Kelly’s brain. There will be a performance review suggesting that she chill the eff out.*)

It didn’t matter how grammatically sound our sentences were. It didn’t matter if we nailed the perfect word choice for the occasion. It didn’t matter if we thought we were being as crystal clear as we possibly could, and said in so many words that things were resolved. Something was missing that left me completely unsure about where I stood with my friend, and very likely, where he stood with me. 

But I found what was missing a few days ago. It was his face. 

After months of only communicating through the written word, we finally sat down together. It took some courage on both of our parts. Because neither of us really knew what we might find on the other side of that, which wasn’t how it used to be. It used to be an easy thing that didn’t involve uncertainties about how you’d be received once there. But suddenly it wasn’t that easy thing anymore, which made it weird.

Until we were actually face to face. It took me only a moment to know we were okay. Was some of it still awkward and uncomfortable? Yes. But I also finally had all the information I needed to know it was worth working through it to get back to that easy place. 

For everything this beautiful language of ours can do, with its limitless combinations of letters and syllables and semantics, it can’t take the place of looking someone in the eye and seeing what you really need to know. I try to only use my words for good, but words can lie or be misinterpreted much easier than eyes. And what I saw allowed me to finally stop worrying. It gave me permission to stop being weighed down. And – probably much to the delight of my friend – it made me realize I didn’t need to keep sending long ass emails explaining my feelings. 

So now I am sitting here, on the morning of my 43rd birthday, adding another deposit into my wisdom bank. And I am feeling grateful that I get to begin a new trip around the sun a little more enlightened than before, blessed with all of the friendships that have come to be so very important to me. It is the only gift I really need.

And that gift was made possible by the power of presence, not the power of my beloved words.

•••

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“PRESENCE Daan Roosegaarde Groninger Museum” by Studio Roosegaarde is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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