I recently just finished a really great book by Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness. In one section of the book Rolheiser writes about a conversation he had with a nun. In that conversation the nun said the following:
“my vocation is, at each moment, to make the person in front of me the most important person in my life!”
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the nun said to Rolheiser, and wondering if I do that myself with those I encounter. We have all experienced (at least I hope so) what it feels like when someone is really paying attention to us…free of distraction. We have that feeling as if everything else has fallen away (all the noises, background conversations, etc.), and we become, if only for a moment, the most important thing to that person.
It sounds easy, but this is not easy to do. We live in a culture that finds it very hard to focus on the people directly in front of us. We are always wondering about who is texting/calling us as our phone vibrates in our pocket. We are wondering what latest news has come across the wire. We stare past people in church, wondering if someone more exciting is available to talk to during greeting time.
There is no secret formula to making the person in front of us the most important person at that moment. But I think it involves several things (that I know of), and probably lots of other things (that I’m unaware of). Here are some things/reminders that I try to keep in mind:
- Cutting out distractions. When I’m with people, I try to limit, or eliminate the distractions so that that person in front of me becomes the most important person to me. For me that means turning off my phone/closing my laptop/turning off the TV or radio during conversations with others. This was/is a difficult practice.
- Reminding myself that my encounters with others are a gift–it is a divine encounter, not experienced elsewhere. I love Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationship, and how Aubrey Hodes summarizes some of it here: When a human being turns to another as another, as a particular and specific person to be addressed, and tries to communicate with him through language or silence, something takes place between them which is not found elsewhere in nature. Buber called this meeting between men the sphere of the between.
- We have a better sense of self, and who we “truly” are when it is reflected back through another person, rather than through a self-construct we have built ourselves. We often spend countless hours constructing another self (via technology, superficial relationships, lies, degrees, awards, money, fame, etc.), but someone we truly devote our energy, focus and time to (as if they are the most important person) can truly liberate us in many ways. I think we often avoid doing this practice for out of fear that we may be exposed.
- To be truly present to another person I think requires the practice of “simply noticing.” I’m currently in a course/coaching program that trains therapists, executives and other professionals to be better at their craft, and one of the things that has resonated with me is this concept. “To simply notice is to be aware–to pay attention. Simply noticing has nothing to do with asking yourself why you are the way you are, although these answers may become obvious to you as you learn to simply notice your being you. (Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson, pp. 26). The more I “simply notice” and pay attention to what is going on around me, the more I able to focus myself on those that I encounter. I think we spend a lot of time unaware of our behavior, and not noticing how we interact. I’m trying to change that in my own life.
These are some things/reminders that I keep in mind as I try to practice the vocation of making the person in front of me the most important person.
Have you found anything helpful to you as you try to do this in your own life?