The Intractable Dilemma Of Presence And Absence

Among the many intractable dilemmas of my life [1] is the intractable dilemma of presence and absence. For lack of a better way of putting it, I am a haunted soul, tormented by the ghostly presence of history and memory that continues to make itself known in nightmares and in intrusive flashbacks in both my sleeping and waking life. At times, it is easy to wonder if there are any acceptable alternatives to this dilemma. If we are fully present in the lives of others, or if others are fully present in our own lives, are we encouraging false hope and misinterpretations of what we are really interested in? If we are around but not giving a great deal of personal attention, are we trying to avoid awkwardness, however awkwardly, or are we interested in snooping in on someone else’s business without being present in conversation with them? If we choose not to be around someone, are we trying to avoid them to seek to avoid creating further problems or do we do so out of active dislike? So much depends on motive, and where communication is absent or unclear, it is easy for all of us, especially people prone to ridiculous levels of over-analysis like myself, to go astray or to lead others astray by either not saying enough, saying too much, or not saying clearly enough.

In the Bible, God is known on several occasions to have communicated to His servants through dreams. He told Joseph, for example, that his brothers and father and stepmother/aunt would bow before him, and they did, though not in the way that he would have likely expected as a seventeen year old. Joseph was told in a dream about the fact that his pregnant fiancé had not been unfaithful to him, and recognized the dream as coming from God. My own experience with numinous dreams has been more like that of Job, full of numinous night horrors, where there is obvious deeper significance but where that message has not tended to bring comfort. The children of Israel were not comforted by God’s presence on Mount Sinai, and they were terrified by it, wanting God to get as far away from them as possible, yet they still wanted His blessings and His guidance, as long as it was in a safe way to them. Israel was never able to feel safe with God, and God’s ardent and passionate desire to be close to them was a source of terror rather than the comfort it was meant to be.

Since early childhood, I have suffered the horrors of PTSD, a scourge that relates directly to this dilemma between presence and absence in several profound ways. For one, the past continues to live in my haunted memory, where a chance comment or action on the part of other people around me can trigger the overwhelming panic and terror of what it was like for me to live as a tormented and abused small child in an incredibly dangerous world. Yet, at the same time, my own native gentleness, especially with those whom others often overlook and ignore, brings me into frequent situations where the potential for serious distress is not far away. My own sensitivity to others has tended to show that this is true for others as well, caught in their own intractable dilemmas and looking for a way to be at peace with others and within themselves, to live lives without feeling threatened by others, and without desiring either to be a threat to others. We desire absence but feel presence despite long periods of time and great physical distances; we feel absence when others would want very much to be present if we would only let them be present. Our lives are marked by ambiguity and ambivalence where we wish for clear communication and undivided hearts. We do not like what we have and do not know what we want, and where we know what we want we do not know how to get where we want to go from where we are.

In my CASA training earlier this week, I volunteered to do playacting with someone who was pretending to be a small and unhappy child drawing about her absent family, from whom she had been taken by the government. Although playacting can sometimes be an awkward experience, it is less awkward when one does it fully, and so I sat on the floor and asked the other person what they were drawing, showing an interest in the family and in the thoughts and feelings of the (imaginary) child. The backstory of this particular case involved a great deal of presence and absence, where the mother had been sexually abused as a child, where the father was absent from the life of his child because he was in jail for drug dealing, and where the family background of both the father and mother involved the ghosts of still older historical wrongs and beliefs in the healing power of tribal and family identities, even where family is often a source of our greatest suffering [2]. The conversation went on for quite a while because it was easy, perhaps too easy, for me to relate to and show curiosity in the lives of a small and suffering child. I am not so far removed from such a state myself as I would like to be, but from my own deep wounds comes my compassion and empathy for others who suffer as well.

Perhaps we are not so far removed from God and Jesus Christ as we think sometimes. In dealing with other beings of free will and rational (or irrational) thought processes, we face the essential dilemma between what is real and what is real to us. Our feelings and thoughts are real, but they may not, and often do not, correspond with the reality within the hearts and minds of others or in the objective reality outside. Our ability to understand either the objective internal realities of others or the objective external reality common to us all is limited by the failures of gathering sense data and our failures to communicate ourselves with others or to understand what is being communicated to us. For these blunders, our own and others’, we suffer greatly. We spend our lives trying to be understood, and if we are wise, trying to understand as well. In some areas we succeed better at this quest than in other areas. In some areas we have less ability to recognize what is being communicated, more wounds and scar tissue, and more struggle. Yet when we struggle, we also are being the gift of the experience that allows us to relate to a world full of struggle and suffering, a world that longs for what it fears, to be close to its Creator and Father. One day, ere we die, that dilemma will have to be resolved one way or the other, even if the problem is beyond our own capacity to solve it ourselves.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Love & Marriage, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Intractable Dilemma Of Presence And Absence

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