Give the Best Present: The Gift of your PresenceBy:
Recently I met someone who reminded me about what really matters, someone who inspired a perspective that remade my world anew. And for that reason, I’m so glad I can say yes to the question that is all the buzz across Texas: "Have You Seen Leon?"
When I first spotted Leon, he was sitting in the park with a man and a woman, playing a guitar. They seemed to me to be three attractive and interesting looking people, and I decided that they must be a burgeoning indie rock band, collaborating on a new song. I was deep in downtown Dallas, walking my dog, Mack, and in my imagination these three were locals enjoying loft living in the high-end redevelopment corridor, or on the bill that night at one of the hip new clubs in the gentrified downtown area. It is amazing what the mind can make up, and in the end, meeting Leon and his friends would offer a series of insights about perception and judgments, and sound a powerful call for unconditional love.
Because, actually, Leon and his friends weren’t hipsters at all, and no, they didn’t live in the area. Instead, Leon was far from his home and family, engaging in a very powerful act of live action role play. Leon, a youth pastor, was homeless on the streets of Dallas for one month. To grow his compassion and understanding, he was spending 30 days living out the at-times harrowing experiences of far too many Americans across the nation. Experiences of hunger, cold, sleeplessness, fear, disorientation, disconnectedness, and perhaps worst of all—as Leon would share—sheer invisibility.
In a twist from the judgments lobbed at Leon in his previous days on the street, I’d misjudged him in a positive light, but I’d fallen into my mind’s trap and judged him nonetheless. Drawn to his energy, and thinking he might be a budding celebrity, I’d asked Leon if he’d play me a song. (He did, offering a sweet rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) And then he revealed what he was up to, mentioning that he and his family were blogging and updating a Facebook page about the experience. Very quickly our conversation turned to how Leon was coping, and he spoke of how hurt he felt to be so actively ignored. He was a week into his experiment, and rattled far more by the lack of human connection than by the complexity of staying fed and warm on the streets of a big city.
I knew what he was talking about. Living in San Francisco and Los Angeles, I’ve had hundreds of encounters with people on the streets. And so many times over the years, when I’ve stopped to say hello, ask if someone was O.K., or offer to grab them something from the grocery store, I was told things like, “You are the first person who’s made eye contact with me today,” or, “Thank you for treating me like a real person,” or, “It is so good that you stopped instead of just pretending I don’t exist.” Wow. These experiences touched me deeply, and reminded me that even though I may not have as much money to share as I’d like, I have something even more powerful to give: the present of my presence.
By the time I met Leon, I’d been in the area for a few days and seen a lot of homeless folks. I’d also witnessed unusually kind and gentle interactions between the homeless population and bicycle patrol officers. It was so different than what I’d seen in other places that I approached the police to learn more about what was happening. They too recognized the power of giving the gift of presence. This was policy, one officer told me: to learn names, connect, share moments of humanity regularly, and to see what people needed. “They are a part of our community; these folks matter,” said another officer. “My job is to make sure they are comfortable and can have at least some chance at a future, some chance at dignity.”
Leon was open to sharing, and I was curious about his experiences. Of course he was unsettled by it all, yet it was clear that by being out on the street, he was growing in profound and spiritual ways. He talked about how much he was learning from a longtime homeless man named Arthur. Leon was impressed at how outgoing and unconditionally loving Arthur could be with person after person who walked past him, despite the fact that few even acknowledged him in any way. Even as part of a population that was invisible to so many, Arthur made a point to express kindness to every single person he saw. And despite his life situation, Arthur was happy.
The gift of Arthur’s presence for Leon and I was the reminder that unrequited love is indeed still complete and total love. Though people weren’t responsive to Arthur, when he was in a state of love—being loving in thought and deed—he was in that moment connected to the Divine in an experience of perfect love, not at all alone on the streets. The love was whole, simply because he was feeling and expressing it. There was nothing more to do, nothing that anyone needed to do to him to complete Arthur’s experience of love!
And we realized, of course, that this is true for all of us. Our experience of love can be palpable, unwavering, and transformative, always, and the very act of loving brings us into relationship with Spirit. Leon and I savored the idea that with this belief, there could be no one-sided relationships. And we reminded one another that Arthur’s loving state was a way of being available to all of us.
In this way, seeing Leon was really seeing the light. I couldn’t wait to tell you all! And I hope that in this season of giving, you’ll give yourself and another that truly divine gift of your attention, focus, and presence.
Celia Alario is a communications strategist, coach and professor. She cavorts with grassroots change agents, academics and donors who share her love for social justice, planetary healing and culture shaping. She sustains her activism through an alchemic mix of yoga, hula hooping, and practicing the art of nonattachment. Bred by New Yorkers and raised in Los Angeles, she alternatively chases her poodle across the majestic redrock landscapes of Southeastern Utah and the effervescent coastlines of Central California.