I recently saw one of those memes go by on Facebook, those cute or clever sayings that either make you roll your eyes or share it with the world. This particular one was referring to the upcoming holiday season. Usually I forget these memes as soon as I scroll on, but this one stuck with me for a bit.
We’ve all heard it many times and in many ways:
“It’s not your presents, but your presence that matters.”
“The greatest gifts are family and friends”
“Your presence is the best present”
These are lovely sentiments, but what do they really mean?
There are plenty of tips online about how to word an invitation that makes this kind of point, and how to respond to such an invitation. But how many of us have relatives who might say something like this, but then make you feel guilty when you actually show up empty-handed?
And how many well-meaning parents have tried to set up the holiday family games night, only to be discouraged by the underwhelming enthusiasm of kids who do more bickering than laughing, or who leave for their screens after the first few rounds and sulk when you call them back?
Being fully present together seems like an obvious and important goal, but how do we actually do it? Whether with our spouse or our kids, truly being present is hard.
Being present for another takes a lot of energy and intentionality that we don’t often have, particularly during the busier seasons of life. And when it isn’t reciprocated by our preoccupied spouse or hyper kids, it gets even harder. It seems much easier to try to create that magical moment with a gift that will bring a great “wow!” than to persist in creating meaningful moments that seem to fall flat for the rest of the family.
The reality is that developing a family culture of presence is an on-going job, not to be attained only during the holidays or summer vacations. Cultivating relationships characterized by such tuned-in closeness can only happen in the daily responses to life as it unfolds from the morning rushes out the door to the busy evening routines.
Dr. Jean Clinton said it this way in a 2013 interview with Global News:
“We are driven, absolutely driven to connect. What is important is the drip, drip, drip of everyday life. You don’t suddenly make up for not talking to your kids for six months by going away for a week to Disney World. It’s the day-to-day serve and return that makes a big difference.”
It is in the daily time of sharing a meal together, or as Dr. Clinton says, “by having your kids feel ‘felt.’ By having your eyes light up when they walk in the room.”
And that takes intentionality, focus, and making relationships a priority, every day. Fortunately, there are some great maps for how to develop such closeness in relationships.
Dan Hughes, in his book Attachment Focused Parenting, promotes parenting from a place of Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy (PACE), grounded in unconditional love. He helps parents develop the skills needed to be present and responsive to their children.
Being present is just as important in our other relationships too. Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight shows couples how to develop the kind of emotional presence with each other that is characterized by Accessibility, Responsiveness and Engagement.
The reality is, being present is an approach, a way of being, that we need to foster year-round. It can’t just be a holiday special.
So, if you are finding it hard to be present during the holiday season, or if you are finding it hard to get the rest of the family to be present, it might be time for a family meeting or conversation about what is most important, and how to better live out the values and priorities you hold. It might mean deciding to let go of some traditions and rituals, and developing new ones.
Perhaps you might use this holiday season to start to shift the focus off of presents onto being present. But don’t stop when the holidays are over. Find or create intentional ways to be present throughout the coming weeks and months. And perhaps you’ll find that being present becomes the way of being in your family.
And then, maybe, being present won’t be so hard next year.
Susan Winter Fledderus is a Clinical Therapist with Shalem Mental Health Network