Presence is even better than presents

If you're past your 60th birthday and elected to have children decades ago — and if those children had children of their own — you may have spent some portion of this holiday season seated on cushioned church pews or less-comfortable metal folding chairs watching a Christmas pageant.

My husband and I attended a holiday pageant this week where dozens of cherubic children with wings of assorted shapes and sizes, including some made by creatively fluting the edges of Dollar Store paper plates, sang their hearts out.

It was a cross-generational event. There were a few adults and several teenage Gabriel-type angels, male and female, and one young man who played the tenor saxophone with such talent it deserves its own hallelujah. Most of the angels were predictably angelic, but there were two rascally, little-boy angels whose misdeeds were magnificent enough to assign them to permanent cocoa-making detail.

My husband and I flew for an hour and then drove for several more to attend this particularly well rehearsed pageant because the star was our 9-year-old granddaughter, Sarah Adriana. She was a sparkly dressed, brown-eyed angel named Abigail. Some people attending might not call her "the" star, but they would be wrong.

Her parents had advised us in advance that Sarah belted out her solos, but we were still unprepared for her rich, strong voice and the emotion-filled way she delivered the memorized musical material. The girl had presence! We have a bit of bias, of course, but the man seated behind us noted the same thing. Sarah was in the moment and completely tuned into giving the audience her best stuff as she sang and moved across the stage. Even when her tinselly halo fell off her head, she stayed fully focused. It was a joy to behold.

At this time of year, the word "presence" is usually spelled differently and involves unwrapping a gift and hugging and thanking the person who gave it to you. If you're around someone who has presence, you might want to hug and thank them, too. Presence is its own gift.

There are several ways to think about the concept of presence. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who was completely absorbed in listening to what you were saying? I mean completely. You knew they were not trying to come up with what they intended to say in response or distracted by the circumstances or the surroundings. The individual with whom you were having a discussion was fully engaged and interested in you and the information you were offering. Have you experienced that? Not frequently enough, I suspect.

One could think about it this way. Have you provided that to someone else — the gift of a listening presence? No ribbons or bows necessary. It just involves good eye contact and your complete and quiet attentiveness. I say "just," but it's hard to do — might even take some rehearsal.

As we age, we are more easily distracted. It is part of the reality of getting older. In addition, sensory loss related to hearing and vision can make being fully present in a conversation more difficult. Add to that, by our sixth or seventh decade we are incredibly well practiced in self-involved communication.

All that said, why not give it a try. Rehearse if you need to. Decide you will be a fully present and active listener in your next conversational encounter. If you pull it off — I predict grateful hugs will follow. Possibly even choirs of angels singing.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at

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