The Lost Art of Being Present: Connections

The Lost Art of Being Present: Connections by Nupu Press www.nupupress.com

“Too, too sick-making,” said Miss Runcible, with one of her rare flashes of accuracy.
from Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh.

I spent a lot of my 20s sitting in airport transit lounges. An airport lounge is like a riverbed – it may seem fixed but everything about it is changing every few minutes. Passengers, like water, continue to flow through.

In those days, I would talk to my fellow travellers. There was the young British woman on her way back from a fellowship in Pakistan. She had been rather taken by the devotion to faith she saw there (or rather, taken with a young man she’d met, who’d had this devotion) and asked me about converting to Islam.

There were the three middle-aged Bangladeshi men who, like me, were delayed on a flight to Dhaka, and we wiled away twelve hours in the café in Dubai or one of those Middle Eastern hubs, having fiery conversations I otherwise never had with middle-aged Bangladeshi men back then – about art, wine bars and politics.

There was the young, uncommonly handsome man from South Africa who was helpful beyond any call of duty to a stranger – bringing me coffee, then food, then accompanying me to the other end of the terminal to my gate and staying with me when my flight was delayed. Young, uncommonly handsome men rarely feel the need to extend themselves, so I was relieved to finally unlock the mystery: he was on his way to a retreat in Europe; he was a Buddhist, he was nice to everybody.

These days I rarely talk to other people in airports; we all have our eyes and/or ears buried in our gadgets. If we’re not yakking away on the phone, then we’ve tuned out our world by focusing instead on games, music, films and books.

Air travel now has no vestige of dignity, let alone glamour. I do my best to ignore the fact that I’m there at all – stuffed in a cramped airport lounge with muzak, neon chain logos competing for my attention, amidst wafts of dough and high fructose corn syrup fried in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. I’m happy to escape my world, as if leaving one continent for another, as I frequently do, is not enough.

Techie

Gadgets and technology are now a part of my life. I am a huge supporter of what they enable me to do. Oh, the marvel I felt when we got on email. I had moved countries several times in a few years, making new friends everywhere. Now we could stay in touch with ease. I felt not only that I had more friends, but also that I had become a better friend.

It was another wave, on a larger scale, when social media became big and I got on Facebook. Now I could read about what they were doing without even emailing. It was as if my world expanded with one click.

Unfortunately, the general quality of someone’s news feed runs roughly like this:

– Here’s a photo of me pouting.
– Some people are SO annoying!
– Withering social commentary about a current political situation.
– The traffic is terrible today.
– I’m so happy! I’m so lucky!
– Here’s a photo of me gazing dreamily into the distance.
– SIGN THIS PETITION!
– Witty take on a news item.
– Groan, moan, everything sucks.
– Hysterical emoting over the death of a famous person I’ve not met personally.
– I ate delicious duck today.

It reminds me of the talk show skit on Saturday Night Live where Linda Richman (Mike Myers) would throw a non-sequitur to the audience, “A chickpea is neither a chick nor a pea. Discuss.” (Actually, it’s possibly more like another SNL skit of a fake host, Stuart Smalley played by Al Franken, who began each show by looking into the mirror and telling himself, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, doggone it, people like me!”)

I’m relieved real life interactions are not like on Facebook; I would not motivated to socialise.

Dash it

I had a meeting last week to discuss and clear up a matter. The issue was discussed – and cleared up – in minutes. Despite the fact that both of us are writers, we had found it difficult to properly explain and be understood earlier via email. This is deeply worrying since, for both of us, 95% of our communications – with the world – are on email.

I have, immodestly, generally prided myself on being a thoughtful emailer. My film life trained me to reply to all emails within 24 hours. I rarely dash off a curt one-liner. I like to think I write with care; moreover, that I can express myself well with the written word.

My closest friends and family are scattered all over the globe. Undoubtedly, email and Skype have given my relationships a comforting thread that connects me to them even when we’re apart. But there are two dangers with this. One I learnt during my marriage, when months at a time were spent with my (now ex) husband in one place and me another: we were recounting, rather than sharing, experiences. This leads to the other danger, one of a false sense of closeness – I’m in touch with friends from all over the world, yet I am not really present in their lives.

We may think we’re surrounded by love and warmth by exchanging texts, calls and emails, but we miss out on significant details that 3D our bond: eye contact, body language, the warmth of their touch. (Yes, I just turned “3D” into a verb. It’s time someone did.)

Interacting with people through Facebook is like a Hollywood blockbuster that caters to the lowest common denominator; it’s fun, but not soul-enriching. Moreover, social media gives us a misplaced sense of security. We may have 1,763 friends and still feel isolated. Technology is a poor substitute for a hug.

Effort

This is not a rant against our digital world. My life has changed for the better with technology. But over time I’ve let it encroach my life more than I should because I can be lazy. It’s like getting accustomed to wearing sweats at home; putting on anything tailored then becomes a major chore. Dashing off an email or writing an update on Facebook is easy. And its very ease makes the effort of meeting in person seem like a more protracted, weighted bother than it really is.

And sometimes even when we do meet in person, we are only partially available – our engagement halved by the preoccupation of messages, calls and alerts streaming into our gadgets all day long. When was the last time we gave someone our undivided attention? We’re losing the art of being present.

Go first

With news and information at our fingertips, it may feel as if we’re better connected. But in truth our lives become secondhand. It’s other people’s news, other people’s opinions. To create our own stories we need to experience it firsthand. And most of our stories take place in our exchanges and adventures with others.

Face to face interactions is not just important to have with friends and family; we need it with everyone and we need it constantly. It is our connection with humanity that grounds our sense of belonging with the world.

Without it, we lose our sparkle and wonder why everything feels tough and we so alone and weary. The way I now feel when I sit at an airport lounge, doing my best to ignore the reality around me by looking only at my Kindle.

Being stuck at the airport pre-new technology for me used to feel rich for its people watching. The constant flow of travellers provided intrigue as I tried to guess where they were from, or watched the delicate dance of relationship dynamics playing out, often without my understanding a word. It was human nature manifest in all its layers and nuances. Was that more exciting than reading a book? Not always, but I was engaged with the moment, I was experiencing it, I was fully present. And when those unexpected conversations were struck up, I was open to creating my own stories firsthand.

“Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” ― Confucius

Related Recommendations:

film iconThe perils of breaking up with someone on an answering machine. Watch Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and enjoy every rich, hilarious frame.

book icon2Long before the days of mobile phones, a mix-up accidentally sends a children’s governess to a nightclub singer’s flat. Love that a prim and plain middle-aged woman – in 1938 no less, when the book was first published – has a second chance to reinvent herself. Read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, the most delightful book ever (best to skip the film adaptation, though).

music buttonThe first song ever aired on MTV, Video Killed the Radio Star was to usher in the exciting new age. Listen to The Buggles and sigh about how quaint it all sounds now.

2 thoughts on “The Lost Art of Being Present: Connections

  1. Brilliant piece Nupu. “Technology is a poor substitute for a hug”, says it all. The sheer depth and sparkling lucid text made me read it twice. A large section of us do feel the same way and thank you so much for expressing it with such flair. Do keep writing please, it’s an absolute joy to read your columns. Please do excuse me for sharing it with my friends on FB though :)

    1. Thank you so much, Pragya, I’m moved by your kind words, and also by your thoughtfulness to write in. Please do absolutely feel free to share on FB or anywhere else – I write this to be read! (I removed the share buttons only because I figured that anyone able to read my blog would know how to share it if they chose to.)

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