Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth

Being Present to Others
by Jan Johnson

In the decade-old film, Clara's Heart, a Caribbean woman becomes a nanny to a boy in a well-to-do family. In spite of their different backgrounds, Clara wins the boy over, particularly by sharing her life in her Caribbean community. When the boy's parents separate, she is the one who gives him the time and attention he needs. Clara shares with him her home, her friends and even her past struggles with an estranged spouse and grown son. Viewers are surprised that a rich kid could bond so well with a poor Caribbean woman, but she is open to him in a way others are not.

In a similarly paradoxical situation, Jesus became a significant listener in the life of a woman who had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve years. She wanted his healing touch but he was hurrying off to help the daughter of an important religious official. Instead of delaying him by speaking to him, she "cheated," making the briefest contact with his clothes. That finger-to-cloth touch pulled power from him and when he turned to ask, "Who touched my clothes?", she didn't answer. His friends were astonished that he could pose such a question in a pressing crowd, but he kept asking, eager to connect with the person in need.

Once Jesus discovered her, she didn't just state her name, thank him and run home, but she stood there and told him the "whole truth." Imagine a female in those times speaking about a long-term hemorrhaging problem to a male in the middle of a teeming crowd. He never belittled her for her superstitious, presumptuous behavior -- assuming his clothes were wired with power and then grabbing that power without asking permission. This woman who had previously been reluctant to speak now overflowed with words. What could have prompted this dramatic change except the focused attention of a listener who wasn't too preoccupied to hear all the details?

Jesus had a way of saying, I am here, in his words and manner (John 8:42) that let people know he had nothing more important to do with his time than to be with them. In so doing, he gives us a glimpse of God who is eager to know us and he also offers us a model for redemptive work on this earth.

But wide-eyed listening is so difficult to muster. It requires such humility to stop moving and shaking long enough to be present to people. To allow someone to pull you in on the tractor beam of their gaze is to submit to that person. Taking enough time to hear the details of the "whole truth" impinges on our longing to get ahead in a me-first, look-out for number one way of living. I'm racing through life, interacting with cash machines and e-mail messages so I won't have to bother with people and then, there's a breathing human face who wants me to respond. It's as if this person is carving off a piece of me and it hurts. It's one thing to say I want to become a person who "welcomes" the "stranger" (Matt. 25:35), but quite another to have any sense of mission when my routine is interrupted.

I felt this pull when I was preparing a talk about growing a heart for people. Interrupting my work, my 16-year-old son came into my office to ask me a question. Instead of answering him while gazing at the computer screen, I slowly turned my entire body to face him, rested my hands in my lap and looked at him. He then sat down in the window seat opposite me, and I focused on him. For a few minutes, it felt downright odd to pay such close attention to this boy.

When we attempt to offer such alertness to others, distant voices whisper, What's in it for me? How can this person help my work, my reputation, my favorite causes? Most of us only half-listen to a conversation, waiting for a reference to what interests us or planning what to say next. Acquaintances become objects we must persuade to our opinion; children become recipients of parental quality time; lunches become occasions for acquiring greater clout.

I can see Jesus gently drawing this flow of despair and information out of this woman. I imagine him titling his head forward in sympathy that she spent all her money on doctors, but nothing helped her (Mark 5:26). This scene somehow empowers me to listen, face-to-face, to the person who appears in front of me (even if she or he is superstitious and presumptuous) and consider that this person is a deep mystery to be explored and appreciated, someone with whom I can connect. Unlike Christ, I have no miracles to offer, but I can receive and taste their words as we talk.

Pondering this, I listened to my son sitting as he sat in the window seat that day and I wondered, What can this terribly sufficient almost-man who rappels from cliffs need from me? In the quiet of his storytelling, I saw that he needed me in ways he would not verbalize: to share jokes, to question his opinions, to mess up his pony-tail. If I had not turned around and faced him that day, he would never have sat down to talk.


We might imagine ourselves as the disciples in the shuffle around Jesus that day. I would have tapped my feet impatiently, clearing my throat, pulling on his sleeve to go. Slowly, it might dawn on me that this is going to be one of those "golden moments" to be recorded in history. Maybe I should pay attention.

Unfortunately, golden moments rarely announce themselves -- they pounce on us. Because of changes in work schedules, I am now driving my teenage daughter to school for the first time since she was in first grade. I do not like this. I am not a morning person and am not alert enough to easily notice kids darting out in front of cars. But the task falls to me, so I do it. Then my daughter's friend needs a ride everyday, and well, I take her too. I perfect the craft of tuning out these girls riding in my car so I can ooze quietly into my day. I submit to the situation enough to be alert, but not enough to give conversation or heart to these teenage girls.

But these girls are not to be ignored. They play the radio and gossip, so I feel annoyed and do the spiritual thing I do with people who annoy me -- I pray for them! When I realize I'm using prayer to tune them out, I feel worse. So I listen to them and am drawn in, and it dawns on me that I'm participating in one of those quality parent activities -- interacting with my daughter and her friend. Now it feels good because I'm being a good parent, but I push that too far and start telling them what they ought to feel and think. What a stretching process it is to be present to people! It takes such self-abandonment to simply enjoy them and pray for peace and harmony in their day.

How do we acquire such humility? The unidentified author of The Cloud of Unknowing says that the best sort of humility comes from "recognizing the transcendent goodness of God . . . and his overflowing, superabundant love for man." God's goodness. God's love. Jesus was good enough to stop when he had an important appointment. Jesus honored her enough to stand there and listen. Borrowing from God's goodness and love and wrapping ourselves in this picture of the woman and Jesus, we can, for a moment or two, yield an attentive ear to those we might otherwise control with a word of dismissal. God's openness to us stimulates us to climb outside the walls of our self-obsession and delight in another person.


To even begin to listen to another person forces us to die to ourselves. A whole committee in our head has to be quelled. At a high school track meet a few weeks ago, I saw a woman who used to come to the church we attend. As she approached me, I heard one of the committee members in my head say, Distance yourself from this woman! She comes on too strong!

She asked about my activities and then told me how her influence on her job had increased. A committee member in my head piped up, She's one-upping you. She's flaunting her success -- see if you can match it. I could feel my face contort into its logical let's figure-this-out expression as I began to critique every comment she made. Then I caught myself and offered the breath prayer that rescues me in difficult conversations: Show me the heart of this person. One of the committee members in my head responded with, Soften up a bit -- don't give her reason to prove herself to you. That felt better -- I almost liked this woman! As each committee member paraded through my mind -- the fashion critiquer (a black leather jacket -- is she trying to look twenty?); the personality evaluator (What does her husband see in her?); the fanatic police (Don't get her started on X topic!) -- I had to remind myself to listen with the ear of my heart.

Why is this such a struggle to be present to people? "To die to our neighbors means to stop judging them, to stop evaluating them, and thus to become free to be compassionate," wrote Henri Nouwen. "Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates the distance, the distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other." To give up our preoccupation with evaluating others feels like death. We're saying good-bye to the self-importance that tells us that we, above all others, truly know what's right. We surrendering our cleverness and discernment skills. To give this up involves a purposeful grief that must be chosen over and over.

The committee members in our head don't surrender easily. They don't excel in goodness and love and so I must offer the same goodness and love to myself. The lesser sort of humility, according to The Cloud of Unknowing, is to "see clearly the degradation, misery, and weakness of the human condition." I am very good at seeing these things in myself, but I must bring myself along gently and let the love of God teach me today as well as I can be taught. Here and there, I can open my heart to others, even someone I find irritating, and watch my heart of stone slowly become a heart of flesh.


Being attentive to those considered by society to be in a power-down position to us can be especially difficult. Men's eyes wander when women talk. Employers shuffle papers as employees answer questions. Middle-class people evaluate the appearance of a lower class person as they chat. Parents wonder how children could drag out a story any longer.

The disciples had been surprised once before that Jesus talked with a woman publicly (John 4:27), and so we can imagine how they must have muddled over their leader's lack of political savvy to keep a synagogue official waiting. Jesus had a tremendous credibility gap with synagogue leaders anyway -- healing this official's son was his chance to exert some damage control. Yet he didn't allow the official and the woman's diverse power positions influence where he offered his attention.

This requires more dying to self as we surrender to situations in which we have nothing to gain. We choose to listen even though nothing productive will occur. Results cannot be an issue. Christ took time to listen to the woman after the healing had occurred. Logistically speaking, it was time for him to move on because he had little to gain and something to lose by engaging in conversation. But he initiated a personal encounter to inform her that her faith had healed her and to celebrate with her that she could now go in peace free of suffering. Doing the good work of healing her body was wonderful, but our full-feeling God offered healing attention to this isolated soul.


Being present to enemies -- those who secretly wish we would drop dead, or at least move away -- may be most troubling. When people do obnoxious things to get attention, criticize in a public meeting or interrupt throughout a telephone conversation, I have such difficulty getting past their neediness. Why don't they grow up? They cost us something -- we feel our energy drain away. A part of us would like to pretend to pay attention, smile politely and move on, but there's that principle of being present to people.

It can be a struggle to consider what's in the person's heart when we've developed such a tidy habit of resenting him or her. What's driving this woman? What does this man need? What could I do to show love to this person in some tangible way (quick, before I change my mind)? The committee members in my head come up with ways I can rescue this person when one suggests I don't have to lose my boundaries of personhood and privacy to meet all this person's needs -- Jesus didn’t move next door to the woman! Maybe that's true. God, show me my role -- if any -- in this person's life. If it’s to listen to him tell the “whole truth,” give me the grace to do that. If it’s to sit in a meeting focusing on her needs instead of her faults, I hope to do that. If it's to smile and wink, help me do that.


So many layers of awareness exist, especially with those we're close to. It's fun to try to be present to God's Spirit in their lives and I've tried to do that by asking a question often reserved for spiritual formation groups or spiritual direction, What has God been doing in your life? I am often stunned that God may be leading someone close to me down an entirely different path from me. I may be learning to open up and share my feelings while my friend has been splashing her feelings around for years and is now learning to be private. I must respect what I hear these people say, which forces me to set aside opinions I have unknowingly but undoubtedly formed. Talking with people about the ebb and flow of God in their life makes me take them more seriously as persons, learning to "concentrate on the real but hidden event of God's presence in their lives."

Some people will, of course, have no idea of how God is working in their lives, or because they're closely tied to you, you will have an overdeveloped opinion about this. This pondering of how God is stirring in their life helps us step back and consider that we don't have to fix, control or advise. Recently, it offered me great clarity in an impossible situation.

My son was pulled in two directions within an organization to which he belonged. At the last minute, I as his parent was forced to make a choice that would seal his direction. His feelings leaned one way, but I had serious reservations about its appropriateness. I wrestled with this until my head hurt, knowing my decision would cause a stir in an already heated atmosphere.

I escaped by doing aerobics and halfway through the session, I reviewed my conversations with God regarding my son in the last year. My son and I had also discussed these things, and noted that it had been a year of achievement, for which I was grateful, but I felt concerned that he think about becoming a more tender person who cared about doing what was right -- not just achieving. I knew which direction within the organization would reinforce the tenderheartedness and integrity I had prayed for and I made that choice. My decision was no less heartbreaking for either of us, but it gave me peace and eventually him as well.

Listening to others trains us for a more contemplative life. As I learn to answer, soothe and set aside all the competing voices in my head, I become a better listener to the creative noise of life and to the voice of God. Instead of jumping quickly to clever opinions and comebacks, we move from an internal rhythm. We learn to slow down actions, rethink approaches and assess our thoughts. The ear of the heart becomes a skillful tool. As we become experienced at this, we can hope that we can respond spontaneously to God's voice, as Mary did when she said, "I am the Lord's servant . . . may it be to me as you have said."


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