Attentive man can change world around him just by being ‘present’

It is true. I was flirting with the idea of packing up, of leaving, of becoming a professor in a top university overseas where I would no doubt, live longer, healthier and without a care in the world.

Until one morning in late 2016, just before I left on a research fellowship in America. I rushed into an all-night shop in a Claremont petrol station at 4am on the way to the airport. There was a woman standing at the door to the Woolworths shop mopping the floor.

As I came in, head down, she spoke and, with the cadence of a Cape Flats woman, said: “I hear you’re leaving the country, hey?”

I was flabbergasted; how did she know about my movements?

Then she said something that put paid to any idea of not coming back. “You can’t leave, hey. My son needs you.”

I was frozen on the spot, emotional and humbled by the heartfelt words of this working mother.

As the cold morning air stung my face, I realised that her plea was profound – to be present. After all, I would probably never meet her son.

What, then, does it mean to be present?

No doubt you would have experienced coming home from a busy day at work and heard your spouse or children say something in frustration like “you’re here, but you’re not here”.

You are physically present but your mind was elsewhere, your attention was not on the people right there, around you.

To be present means, therefore, to be emotionally, cognitively and spiritually attentive to those around you.

I once saw from a distance a university leader sitting with a colleague at a coffee shop in a conference venue. The face of this grey-haired leader was almost in the face of his staff member. Everything was blocked out, the other people clamouring for his attention and the noise in the area. Every word was taken in, every gesture recorded. This leader was present without saying a word as he listened to the concerns of his fellow worker.

Children know, friends know, colleagues know when the teacher or leader they are speaking to is present or not.

Absentee fathers often live at home.

Being present, as a leader, is a comforting knowledge to followers.

The president at a funeral of a slain child in a violent neighbourhood. The parent at a soccer match of his child. The teacher popping into the exam room just to check if everything was okay with her class of learners.

It means a lot.

Presence is its own action. It brings comfort to the bereaved and a felt sense of being recognised as a person.

Even when Nelson Mandela was no longer available to the public, and during his last days, the simple fact that he was alive offered solace and reassurance to millions in South Africa and abroad.

Knowing how and when to be present is a gift. A good manager senses something wrong in the countenance of a colleague.

A wise teacher just knows “there’s something wrong” with the normally ebullient learner in the second row in the economics class.

Such “present leaders” then move closer and might put a hand on a shoulder or offer an invite to tea and biscuits in the break.

Of course, presence is something that can be learnt but for some it seems to perfectly natural to be in the right place with the right message for a lonely or hurting soul.

A leader could be missing in plain sight, occupying a seat in parliament or a big chair in the corner office without any connection to the persons around them.

Not for the first time a parliamentarian from the opposition pointed to a minister who was alleged to have dozed off once again. At the same time, noise is not presence.

Barking orders creates distance not intimacy.

In fact being present does not even require physical existence as so many religions hold true about the presence of the divine. You feel it and know it, in other words, even if you cannot see it.

For us ordinary mortals, learn to be present.

Drop everything.

Listen attentively.

Do not interrupt.

Look the speaker in the eye.

I bumped into the same woman working at the same shop earlier this week.

“With everything that is going on,” she said, “it’s good to have you back.”

If anyone was present, she was.

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