On Being Present

December 13, 2023



Aside from sunshine, there are few things that improve life more fundamentally than being as present as possible for it.


By being “present,” I don’t necessarily mean simple “attendance”–at school, say–although right now many of us in the business would settle for that as a start. When James Joyce wrote that “absence is the highest form of presence,” I have to believe he wasn’t talking about high school. You can have the best teachers, facilities, programs, and resources in the world, and none of it matters a whit if your students aren’t there.


What Joyce means is that being highly present involves shedding some of the self-consciousness that we need in order to move through the daily world, but that makes us less fully available to deep experience and connection. I often urge students to try and be present in this way: not just to attend things but pay attention to them, to participate, listen, applaud, sing along, try something new, or notice others enough to offer four or five genuine compliments a day. Try being wholly where you are, and considering fully whatever you’re experiencing.  You might notice in your own life that this is challenging, and it is especially so for teenagers whose transforming selves occupy much of their mental lives.  


The absence that is the highest form of presence is what we feel when we’re unselfconsciously absorbed–when we are working toward a clear goal, looking to be fluent or masterful in a craft, a sport or art or science–acting, singing, dancing, playing the bass, measuring a 2 by 4, sewing a seam, welding a joint, balancing on a beam, driving a snowmobile. Whatever the goal is, whatever the pursuit, we are–we must be–fully present.


This full presence is harder in pursuits that are less concrete, less physical or dependent on the motions of hands and feet, less subject to the senses. Thinking, for example, is hard; and in today’s pop-up, jump-cut world it is often a casualty of distraction and the over-presence of the mundane in our minds. The cliche of the “absent-minded” professor exists because when you’re fully present in your thoughts, you’re absent from the world in which you know where your keys are. These days looking at our phones produces a kind of absence that can be infuriating to witness and unsettling to recognize in ourselves.


It doesn’t always feel urgent or give us a thrill to think deeply about something—to consider an idea or observe the world around us with thorough interest. Unless you are truly passionate about the life of the mind, it doesn’t get your adrenaline going to interpret, analyze, or turn over in your head what you see, hear or encounter.


But I would argue that thinking and considering, noticing and attending to the world we live in–and then making decisions about how to respond–is actually what we’re here on earth to do. I am positive that it’s what we’re here at school to do. We’re here to learn how to read and observe, to calculate, and then to produce some kind of response to what we’ve read, observed, or approached by way of quantities.


I ask students to think about a moment when you were truly blown away by something you’ve come across–something beautiful or immense or astonishing. First seeing huge, rocky mountains or something like the Grand Canyon, looking out over the ocean, noticing a bright sunset, seeing a powerful painting or sculpture, or listening to someone singing when their voice reaches an impossible note.


Most of us want to do or be something in response, to do full justice to the moment, even if it’s just to applaud. The impulse to take a picture or write about things that amaze us is part of that desire to respond adequately–you want to do something to preserve that moment of clear attention, the experience of being so present, so you don’t forget. To respond to what the world presents to us with the combination of your mind and your senses–which are inseparable–is one of the things that makes us human.


Lately I’ve been trying to reconcile what the world presents to us by way of news and current events with the need to stay present. I’ve been trying to be less obsessive about reading the news that’s in the newspaper, but this is difficult if you’re someone who likes and feels obliged to keep up and feel informed. Even a quick scan of the headlines reminds us of the complexity and unwieldiness of holding all we find there–much less knowing what to do with all the knowledge that we feel we should gather and respond to somehow. When it comes to the news, wholehearted presence and attention can make us feel helpless–because the response we want to provide to what we encounter is not really possible.


Wars and natural disasters continue relentlessly, and I think: we have Jewish and Muslim students, we have students from Ukraine, from Turkey, from the Middle East, from Azerbaijan–everyone needs to know the news if we’re a strong community. Violent incidents driven by hate and fear so unfairly create fear and anxiety for our loved ones here who are part of targeted communities. And more shootings at schools of course worry me–worry all of us–to the core. The fear and alienation that we see at work in these moments is on our minds constantly.


I tell myself that we’re doing our best to help all students to feel connected and loved, seen and valued during these years when everything already feels hard. I tell myself that making St. Johnsbury Academy a place where students can be bravely present will protect them from feeling the kind of despair and alienation that teenagers sometimes feel. So when students are here–in attendance–they have caring advisors, teachers, proctors and guidance counselors; they hear clear messages about our desire to know them as whole people; and we gather, just about every day, to say good morning, and to notice if they’re not here. They may find it annoying sometimes how much we notice.  


There’s a reason we are so insistent about wanting students to be involved, informed, aware, and engaged in all that is available to them in life. Doing so helps them be connected, and to feel that fullness and sense of purpose and worth that is the polar opposite of emptiness and alienation.


My wish for all young people, for our community, for the country and the world this holiday season is that we try as hard as we can to be present–not just in school but in life. Let’s encounter the world bravely, think about it carefully, and celebrate what we discover together. 


Dr. Sharon L. Howell


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