The Power of Presence

By: Harleigh Boldridge (Decorah, IA)


In his book A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough*, Wayne Muller explores what we, as social beings, can do to support  one another in the event of extreme trauma. To the reader he says, “Perhaps the greatest wealth you possess, the most precious, valuable gift you can ever hope to offer any human being, is this one, simple, true thing: You. Your presence.” After reading this in one of my social work classes, I thought I understood Muller’s philosophy of how we can support others through intense sorrow, sudden trauma, or simply overwhelming life events, but recent experiences have renewed my understanding and given it a new light.

In Palestine I was able to truly appreciate the power of presence. My group and I were were challenged by our leaders not to try and solve the problems that we saw with the Israeli Occupation of West Bank, but to instead practice a model of accompaniment. This meant that instead of trying to solve the problems of the Palestinians for them, we sat and listened as they told their stories of invasions in Old City, keys to houses they will never return to, the plight of the Bedouin nomadic tribes, the challenges of living among settlements, biological warfare of Hebron, the mass incarceration of youth, the massacre of arabs, life in refugees camps and on and on.

Naturally, I felt a range of emotions while listening to these stories each day- hate, anger, rage, helplessness, fear- but the request of the Palestinians was quite clear. Nearly every person we encountered asked that instead of trying to “rally the troops” when we went home and send relief we should simply bear witness to their struggle and share their stories without embellishment or requests. For the Palestinians that we met, our purpose was to be in community with them, to learn about their culture and history, and to simply be. A quote from A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough highlights a similar experience to my own:

“they ached to be seen and known, loved and held, and not ever fixed, healed, or treated but simply loved with gentle patient mercy…. Nothing to say, nothing to fix.” (Muller, 132).

But our friends went further to say that any anger we felt was partially wrong. Healing and resolution required that we give up the intense, negative feelings that we have to make space for love, joy, and hope. Living this out means constantly checking in with ourselves, our feelings, our motives, and not allowing ourselves to be driven by negative reactions. It’s a constant balance between fighting for justice and being merciful, between speaking out against the occupation and processing the events of the day.

For the Palestinians, resistance means being present to the positive things around them as well as the occupation. It means organizing and planning future peace, while enjoying a beer, a nice meal, or company in the present. It is not enough to be present to the struggle, to bask silently in the constant stream of confusion and chaos. Survival and overcoming are rooted in the presence of hope, joy, love, compassion, understanding, humility, companionship, and being present to the healing that they bring.

*Muller, Wayne. A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough. 2010. “The Sufficiency of Presence”.

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