This is the time of year when many of us turn our attention to feeding the hungry. When most people think about feeding the hungry, we consider giving canned goods to the poor or serving at a soup kitchen. And what a benevolent service that is! Yet, there is a hunger far more pervasive in our culture than the hunger for physical food, a malady from which hundreds of millions of people suffer every day. It is the hunger for presence and connection.
Recently I was sitting in a club lounge at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a hectic day. Adverse weather conditions had delayed most flights, and the sitting areas were crowded with frustrated travelers. As I got settled, I noticed a woman across the aisle from me. She appeared to be an executive, talking on her cell phone loudly, giving orders to her subordinates. The lady seemed generally irritated and upset, demanding, and rather rude. She went on for quite a while in this manner over a number of calls to different people.
A few minutes later a cleaning lady came through the lounge. A Hispanic woman, roughly the same age as the executive, she bore a kind smile and offered a pleasant, “Hello, how are you?” to the folks she passed. As she picked up the trash and wiped down the counters, she seemed at peace with herself and her work, a sharp contrast to the executive and many of the other travelers.
I marveled at the irony of the scene. Here were lots of business travelers in a club lounge that cost a lot to enter; the patrons likely earned significant salaries, lived in upscale houses, and were successful professionals. By contrast, this humble cleaning lady wore a smock bearing the company name “Scrub,” probably earned minimum wage, and lived in a rented apartment. Yet, she seemed like the happiest person in the room. If ever there was a teaching that happiness comes from the inside out, here it was.
As we move into the holiday season we will exchange gifts, most of which you can touch with your fingers. Yet, as I learned from the cleaning woman, the gift of presence runs far deeper. If you are not present, you are absent, and if you are absent you have missed the most precious gift of all: this moment. A fellow in one of my seminars recounted that he had been feeling unfulfilled in his marriage for many years, and he was disappearing daily. One day his 11-year-old daughter told him, “You’re not here, daddy. You’re a ghost.”
We’re all familiar with Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Christmas Carol” encounter with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and to come. If we were to put a modern spin on the story, Scrooge might meet himself as the ghost of Christmas absent. Christmas and the holidays may come and go, but if you are not here, all the protocols and festivities are meaningless.
I have had my own lessons in the importance of being present and the tragedy of being absent. After I moved to Hawaii, I bought a lovely house in the country and I offered a married couple a rental unit on the property in exchange for caretaking. At that time I was very busy, traveling a great deal. During my times at home, I was constantly debriefing from the last trip or preparing for the next one. As soon as I felt present, it was time to go out again. I was on a treadmill.
One day the wife took me by the arm and invited me to stroll the grounds with her. As we walked, she made a statement that proved to be one of the greatest gifts of my life. She said, “Look at this magnificent property, Alan! Here are trees, birds, flowers and glorious sunrises. It is heaven on Earth. But how much do you enjoy it? You’re hardly here, and when you are here, you’re rushing to come and go. We’re your caretakers, and we enjoy your property more than you do. I wish you would experience the peace and joy that we do here.”
Now that got my attention. My caretakers were enjoying my home more than I was! That day I made a commitment to use my free time for soul satisfaction, not work, and now, after years of practice, I am finally enjoying my property as much as my caretakers did.
I’m not suggesting you need to move to Hawaii to be happy. To the contrary, the goal is to find connection wherever you are. Busy places are the most likely to distract us from connection, and the most powerful places to practice it. A supermarket checkout clerk counted that out of over 200 people she served on her shift, 57 were talking on their cell phones. Many of them, she reported, were discourteous, acting as if she was interrupting them from something more important, while she was simply trying to help them. It’s not what you get done that makes or breaks a life. It’s how you get it done.
Most people are hungry for human contact, many are starving for it, and some are dying for it. This holiday season let’s feed the hungry, starting with our own hunger for depth, meaning, and connection. Then maybe we can attain the extraordinary success of the cleaning lady.