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being present

Posted on by tyler

there i sat, staring this complete stranger straight in the eyes, my right hand on his left shoulder and his right hand on my left shoulder, for 30 seconds. it may have been the longest 30 seconds of my life.

i found my mind flitting around, thoughts running the gamut from "this is intense" to "i can see myself in his glasses"; from "is my blinking distracting him?" to "this is a gentle human being".

this "greeting" made up the first part of a talk i attended by greg russinger, founder of just one

, a non-profit "formed to stimulate greater global awareness about extreme poverty, and to provoke compassionate ideas and intelligent giving in order to provide sustainable relief." i didn't know until after the event who he was or even what he does, but his talk had a strong impact on me.

that greeting was significant in many ways, one of which is that it forced me (and i think everyone else in the room) to consider how much we avoid other people. we take special effort to not look people in the eye or make any connections at all. greg opened his talk with the question, "what does it mean to be present to others?" -- a great thing to consider as technology allows us semblance or veneer of being connected to each other, but nothing close to the intensity i felt of being confronted with another human being.

without boring you with excessive details, i did want to share points he made that i found significant.


  • in certain respects we are unfinished unto ourselves and need other people to survive and even flourish. others challenge and inspire us.

  • isolation is one of the deepest forms of poverty.

  • we have to allow unjust things to affect us, so there will be change.

  • compassion = suffering with another. we need to learn to sit and listen. our first call is to allow the pain of the other to affect us so we gain an understanding of them.

  • "if you want to see, listen" -- t.s. eliot

  • real love causes us to risk and return. it leads us to the endless downward mobility of jesus.


as i am wont to do, i began pondering the implications of this for my role as a designer. since i just got home from this talk, i'm not sure about any answers -- maybe you, dear readers, can come out of the woodwork and help me with that. engaging in the design process should be no different from any other relationship, complete with healthy doses of connectivity, reciprocity, and respect. i supposed it's about that original question greg asked, "how can we be present to one another?". do we look others in the eye and truly listen with undivided attention? do we tend toward longer timeframes without contact and use email instead of the phone or a face-to-face meeting? it's clear what produces faster results, but what are the costs involved, human or otherwise?

further, is it possible to create communication design that helps us be present to one another in new and/or creative ways? i've probably written it here before, but it's worth repeating that i believe design's highest calling is to facilitate relationships.

does this stir any thoughts or ideas for you? i'd love to hear them so we can all move toward being more present in one another's lives, whether it's through communications design or just life in general.