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Cultivating Presence

I attended the University of Pittsburgh in the 90s and I have a special affection for Pittsburgh and its people. This week’s post is dedicated to the city of Pittsburgh, the Jewish community there, the refugees and immigrants they have welcomed, and my dear friends who call Pittsburgh home.

On Sunday I watched an interview with Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh. He was standing in the blocked-off street near Tree of Life. He mentioned the neighborhood was part of his district for 19 years as a City Council member. He lives just five blocks away. And Fred Rogers lived just three blocks away.

And I thought, "How would Fred respond in this moment if he was still with us?" If you saw the documentary film, about him earlier this year, they showed how time after time he faced issues of war, divorce, racism, loss, and helped children be able to face these traumatic events, being present to what they were experiencing.

One particular scene I remember from the movie was when he was at a school with young kids. And what I noticed was the amazing sense of presence, paying attention, and focus he had with this little boy who was talking to him. Fred’s presence was a hospitable, safe presence, a presence that allowed people to emerge.

Let’s imagine a world without a sense of presence, without paying attention. I imagine you have experienced before what it feels like when you are talking with someone who is texting as they are attempting to also listen. And though they may hear the words, what we want is their attention, their presence. Imagine if that happened all the time, everywhere.

Without presence there can be no genuine connection. Without genuine connections, we cannot have relationships. Without relationships, we cannot have society.

And let’s be honest, in our sped-up world it’s difficult to be present, because being present requires slowing down, and having restraint. And it’s also an opportunity to be generous.

“The purest but rarest form of generosity is giving someone your attention” - Simone Weil

Recently I ran into someone I know at a café here in town. I had facilitated an applied improv workshop with his fellow staff a few weeks prior. He works at Francis Place which provides housing and wrap-around services for those who have experienced homelessness. Often there are a lot of things going on at once, and it’s important that they are communicating well as a team, as priorities adjust due to the unexpected occurring regularly.

He told me that they are using a game that I led them through that requires the sender and receiver to make eye contact as they clap simultaneously. He gave me an example. He told me how the other day he had an important task to take care of, and yet at the same time he needed to de-escalate someone. So he showed me how he and a colleague have started really tuning into each other, making eye contact, with their own hands pressed together (like the end of a clap) to make sure they are connected when they are making a request of the other person to take something on for them. He said it’s been very helpful. I was delighted to hear this!

It’s my belief that we need to practice new ways of being with our colleagues. And it's helpful to step outside of the fray of normal day-to-day busyness to experience this. When we can begin to practice ways of being that connect us and tune us into each other, this keeps so much energy from being wasted through miscommunication and accompanying frustrations.

“What we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale." - Adrienne Maree Brown

Work teams in nonprofits, business, and schools are high-performing when staff are tuned into each other, on the same page, and have built trust. This takes intentionality on the part of leadership to see that time invested in strengthening the team is time well spent.

And I believe that’s crucial in our communities and world as well. We need to be present to each other, to our children, to the isolated people in our world.

I think if Fred were here he would sit with us, slow us down and through his presence we’d be remind us that we have that power of presence as well. It’s foundational to a civil society.

Give the gift of your presence to someone today, even and especially in these times.

#cultivatingpresence #appliedimprovisation #misterrogers #payingattention #tuningin


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