Are You Willing to Commit to Proximity and Presence?

Two Very Different Events Brought Home Lessons on How We Connect

 I had the opportunity recently to attend two very different events. Different, but both highlighted how we connect – or fail to connect – with each other. The thread of connection reminded me how important human communication can be. If you doubt that, take a look around at our national conversations today. Still think we are doing OK? Yeah, me neither.

Let’s Get Close

The first event was a presentation by a well-known social activist. This is a man who has done a lot of good in the world. One of his central points was the importance of proximity. We need to get close, physically close, to those we would seek to help. The same could be said of those we disagree with, politically or otherwise.

In both cases, you cannot expect to make a difference long-distance. See a problem? You need to be there, where the problem resides. This means getting out of your comfort zones. It means taking some risks. It means getting off your butt, getting your hands dirty, and not allowing failures to deter you.

Setting the Example

One of the things that impresses me about presidential candidate Corey Booker is that he lives in a difficult neighborhood. He lived there when he was mayor, he lives there now. Why would he do that? Because he does not believe you can serve and assist as a visitor. He wants to be in the midst of what needs to be done. He knows and sees directly those he seeks to assist. He has prioritized proximity.

SEN. Booker is not alone, of course. Others follow this model faithfully. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) readily comes to mind, for example. You and I are unlikely to follow their example so fully. But we can recognize the value of what they model for us. Spend time in difficult settings (neighborhoods, shelters, courtrooms, etc.).

Learn to experience first-hand what living with disadvantages actually feels like. If we can approach social justice issues with a good mix of hope and outrage, we might get it right. To do that, we need to be up close and personal. You might just find the experience changes your life, too.

Can You Hear Me Now?

The second event was a conference of a national community service organization. It offered a session on presence. The concept could not be simpler. The execution – not so simple.

The speaker told us that when we first engage with someone, we have an overwhelming obligation. The obligation is to be truly present in that conversation. To go in with the idea that all our energy and attention will be given to listening to that person. Observing their body language and other clues. Thinking about what they are saying or choosing not to say. To be present.

That means we are not thinking about what we want to say to them or what point we want to score. We are not looking around to see who else we might talk with next. We are in the moment, totally focused on making that connection and hearing that voice. Some people are naturally good at connecting like this, but we all can train to it.

One of the best I ever saw in this regard is Bill Clinton, who clearly has the gift and has consciously honed it. I have been in a room with him a couple of times, with small groups or individuals talking with him. The effect is impressive to watch. As he engaged each person, it was as though a bubble wrapped around them. People felt like they had 100% of his time and attention. He gave them a transformative experience. I watched him do that over and over again.

Step Up and Step In

So, how about it? Want to make a difference, confront an evil, help another? Go to them, go to where the difference needs to be made. And once you get there, shut out the rest of the world. Make the connection you would wish others to offer you in your turn.

Show up, tune in, make it happen. Not bad advice anytime.

     Bill Clontz

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