When we talk about the various meanings of “You had to be there,” we normally think of “being there” as being someplace physically. And of course that’s the prerequisite for being there in other ways. But these other ways include being there mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, showing up fully with all your senses and attention.
In short, it means being present.
Every trip provides you with the opportunity for presence. But it does take effort. Presence requires concentration, energy, and frankly, the need to care enough to invest those resources. But when you do, you gain a much fuller understanding of people, places and situations.
One of the most common opportunities for being present occurs every time you get on an airplane. Other then sleeping on the deck of a ferryboat in Indonesia, riding in the second-class compartment of a train in rural China or India or traveling on a long-distance bus in Ecuador, you rarely spend that much time with a complete stranger so physically close to you.
Because of the artificial intimacy forced by airline seats, most of us do one of two things. We either send the signal “Do Not Disturb” by burying our noses in the in-flight magazine or tuning out the world with our iPods. Or we engage in some superficial banter with our seat companions. But sometimes, when we go beyond that and are present to them, we gain something both rich and meaningful.
For example, recently I was on a flight and got into a conversation with a gentleman who is a medical doctor. We started talking about travel and how oftentimes, the worst travel experiences make for the best stories later on. He proceeded to tell me about a trip many years ago to a remote island in the South Pacific where he came down with a serious tropical disease.
It took him three days just to get a boat from the primitive island where he and his wife were staying to the larger island where he initially was treated at the local hospital. But after only a day there, the hospital released him prematurely. He then found a small clinic where a kind doctor patiently nursed him to a point where he could fly home.
When he offered to pay the doctor at the clinic, the doctor refused. The man was in medical school at the time and therefore the doctor saw it as “professional courtesy” to treat the man for free. But the most meaningful moment occurred when the man’s wife thanked and praised the doctor for his services and skill.
The doctor humbly replied: “I only put on the bandages. God does the healing.”
That one simple comment completely changed how the young medical student viewed medicine. And it continues to this day to affect how he thinks about his practice and how he approaches the entire healthcare system where he works.
That doctor’s comment so many years ago changed this man. And in a small way, by taking time to be present to him and the depths of his story, it has changed me as well, or at least how I think about doctors and medicine.
When you realize the opportunities for presence afforded by modern airline travel, it also changes how you think about those cramped seats. It doesn’t make them any more comfortable, but it can make the journey – and the act of being there – much more rewarding.