Stephen D’Evelyn: On Being Present

Recently the UK government has moved to double the pentalty imposed on drivers caught using their mobile phones while driving. Commentarotrs have ben quick to observe that these penalties may mean little without increased police to catch perpetrators. The porblenm of poeple feeling they must take advantage of every seemingly spare moment to ‘do’ something — do work or connect with friends via social media–highlights again an often-highlighted problem. We are too busy.
There is another problem with using your phone while driving. Research into cognitive patterns has shown that the way we process information when someone is not physically present–say at the end of a phone instead of sitting next to us–is categorically different from the way we process information whne someone is present. This means in practice we are distracted in a unique way when we are paying attention to our mobile phones as compared with trying to hush children in the back seat or talk to someone sitting next to us.

Generally, the big problem seems to be one of distraction and abstraction, ignoring what is in front of us or beside us for somehting or somone not present. The other day I heard the story of the feeding of the five thousand again and noticed something new. When it becomes clear that the large crowd of people gathered to listen to Jesus are going to go without an evening meal, Jesus’ followers immediately think in terms of the people going away to buy food. When Jesus asks them to help the people, they again assume he means buy food.

In the end however, Jesus asks what they have already, not what they or the people can buy. And of course the five loaves and two fish somehow suffice. This seems to me to highlight the importance of paying attention to what we have–what we have been given. This is a much different impulse from our consumerist instinct to buy things–to use abstract financial power to solve a problem. Turning to what we have been given turns our attention to what is at hand. Instead of paying for things, we are paying attention. Attention is open-endeed and not bound by the demands of payback.

The problems of paying attention were at the heart of another news item this week, the canonization of Mother Teresa. Although she famously distanced herself from politics and made some dubious decisions, such as for example taking money from a Haitian dictator, she can also be credited with practising social justice in an important way that lived out a nuanced political theory.

As i understand it, Mother Teresa’s social justice theory has three major components that are all extremely important for our screen-dominated lives: these are seeing those society does not see, being present with marginalized people (as opposed to objectifying and ‘fixing’ ‘them’), and living in solidarity with them (being alongside them). As it happens, I think these three approaches are also crucial to a full social model of disability.

At its simplest, the social model of disability says that persons are disabled by the way society is organised rather than by the ways they differ from norms of able-bodiedness.
Seeing a disabled — socially marginalized — person when others do not is a key step in living out the social model of disability. When society arranges things so that those who differ from an able-bodied norm do not figure–they are kept off stage–the first step to enabling them to figure and allowing them to take centre stage is simply seeing themn, recognising them.

Being present means challenging our natural tendency to priotitize what might be possible rather than welcoming what is before us. As it happens, mindfulness–one of the recent trends in popular psychology inevitable  with both its more rigorous and its more market-driven forms–is used to help treat young people addicted to gaming in Southeast Asia. Bieng present means talking to the people next to us rather than turing away from them to stare into our phones seeking for people we may or may not know outside of cyberspace.

Bieng present also means not creating an aritifical distance between ourselves and those next to us by treting them as problems to be solved, as objects to be gazed at, analaysed, and changed. Instead, living beside them means relinquishing our desire to be more powerful or to dominate. We can simply sit quietly next to someone at the bus stop. We can share a universal observation about the September sunshine. This is not revolutionary. But it is significant, turning ourselves back out towards our fellow human beings and that generous sun shining on us all.



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