2016: Presence > Presents
My favorite marketing campaign over the holidays was Sweetgreen’s clever play on presents.
Beyond the benefit to Sweetgreen’s bottom line, there’s immense value in the social capital this taps into: an age-old desire to break bread with others.
This got me thinking, now that the ‘season of giving’ is over, what if we continue to give simply by being present?
Easier said than done. Time is a valuable resource, and surely it’s a lot easier to gift someone a $50 gift certificate then to expend 2 hours of time with them. Think of all the other things we could be doing!
In some ways, money has become a subordinate currency to time: a band-aid solution to a lack of time. “Sorry I can’t be PRESENT but here’s a cool thing. See ya later!”
Which is why attention may be the greatest gift we can give, no matter the season.
I’m not trying to be self-righteous. Presents – the materialistic kind – are wonderful things and I love receiving them. It’s when they become our sole focus that perspective gets warped. How many times have you been asked, “What did you get for [Christmas/birthday/Valentine’s Day/insert consumer insert holiday name]?” as if receiving a present is a given.
Even in the land of charitable giving, undue emphasis is sometimes placed on material exchange or donations. When people asked what my short-term mission team did in Mumbai, by default I ticked off the gifts we brought: books, supplies, money, food, a computer, and a motorcycle for a pastor in the slums. Never mind that we also taught Bible Study, financial literacy classes, and held devotionals. But by lauding our funds and gifts, I (unintentionally) perpetuated the notion that short-term missions are non-committal, swooping in and plopping their gifts like Santa Clause. What happens to Santa at the end of the night? He returns to a distant faraway land never to be seen for another year.
Presents can bring tremendous value. But they can also distract, absolving us of a responsibility to be truly involved in the lives of others.
If the value of a mission trip lies not in its material gifts, where then does it come from? Here’s what I believe: the benefit of giving a week of your time to fly across the world and partner with vulnerable populations in less explicit and more implicit. It sends a message. A message that the poor, sick, and needy are not forgotten. A message that they are loved. Most of all, a message that they are worth. our. time.
Time is the real value. It’s not the books, the computer, or even the motorcycle we gifted to a pastor to ease his travel to and from the various slum communities (though it’s pretty badass).
Time spent listening, empathizing, and seeing beyond what a rigid caste system deems as untouchable (and therefore, unworthy) is both a palpable and impalpable gift. You can’t package it into a pretty box, but you feel its impact. This doesn’t just exist in the third word. Think about what our aging parents would prefer: a perfectly-wrapped present, or our full and devoted presence (sans buzzing phones – scarce commodity!).
As we return to our post-holiday routine, there will continue to be multiple distractions, obligations, and stressors fighting for our attention. The best we can do is intentionally focus our attention on the things that matter: our friends, spouses, parents, children, or whatever it is we value most.
In a world where attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, it’s as simple – and difficult – as that.