Absence often manifests the importance of presence. I think of my one year old son Raphael. When my wife is not at home, he looks at me and utters a plaintive interrogative, “Mama?” “Mama will be home soon,” I respond, hoping the tone and feeling behind my words will convey a comfort their meaning cannot. For Raphael my wife’s return is an occasion of great joy, and for me of great relief. At times I have wondered what I would say to Raphael if for some reason she actually did not come home.
I will never forget the time I tried to explain the reality of heaven to my young son Nicholas. “You will be with God forever and ever.” That didn’t have much purchase with him. Undaunted, I proceeded, “You will be with all the saints and angels, and all your desires will be fulfilled.” This too did not have much effect. Now Nicholas was at the age where what a child says is pure: no posturing, just straight from the heart. “Gosh,” he said. “All I know is: if you and Mama are there, I’ll be happy.”
I had set out to teach him something. But his words changed my understanding of family life. Even if not theologically precise, his response captures a fundamental truth. Human life is all about presence. Real, personal, presence. And the fundamental place of presence is the home. At the end of the day what else is a home but the place where we can live in the presence of those to whom we are closest?
The need for presence is unmistakable in young children. Barring obvious exceptions such as abusive parents, young children are happy when they are together with their parents. They simply want to be together with the people they love. This striking truth should give us pause for reflection. Is this desire a function of immaturity, or is it rather the fruit of a vision unclouded by the hurts and travails of growing up?
Isolation—the lack of presence—is unhappiness. No wonder so many of us, and of our children, are unhappy. Our homes, which should be great oases, bastions of presence, have become halls of absence.
Who is at home? It seems most of the things that we’re doing we do somewhere else: work, exercise, play … even eat. So much of the time we’re not bodily present. Normally at least we sleep at home.
And when our bodies are there, how truly present are we? Whatever the utility of the many technologies we now have, the fact is they tend to separate our attention from where our body is. I always found the reaction of our young children to my being on the telephone curious. As soon as I picked up the phone—this is when the only phone I had was attached to a wall—two year old Magdalena seemed to need me right away. She just had to show me that tower of blocks, or needed her shoe tied now. My phone conversations were punctuated by the sounds of someone pulling at my pant legs. I have come to realize this was not a coincidence. My daughter perceived that I was no longer really present to her, though my body was. That didn’t seem right to her, so she set about making it right the best she could.
More recent technologies have only amplified the problem. In a recent radio ad a high speed internet provider proudly announced: “Now everyone in the house can be on their own device at the same time.” Hmm. I suppose it’s a problem if only one or two people can be technologically absent. Improved internet access will prevent other family members from being home alone; now everyone can be somewhere else at the same time.
The question is: when and where will they be somewhere together?
Household meals in common, perhaps the most obvious and consistent context for being-together, have been on the decline for years. And rather than reading aloud, singing, or story-telling, much “free time” is spent in activities in which the rest of the family does not participate, or for which they have little understanding or interest.
Absence manifests the importance of presence. But what really teaches the importance of presence is the actual experience of it. A child especially feels the absence of her parents if her parents are usually there, present in body and attention. How we live—or don’t live—in our homes forms our children, and ourselves, for either a life of presence, or of absence. Isolation numbs. Inasmuch as we and our children are deprived of rich, consistent face to face interaction with loved ones in the home, we are all learning to live in isolation. It is a lesson not readily unlearned.