There are languages in the world in which the word for “hello” most closely translates as “I see you.” The ancient Hebrews in particular were a people who could not embrace anything so abstract as “Hi.” For them, a promise wasn’t something that existed only as sound waves, spoken and heard by two people. The Hebrews divided animals and walked between the bloody halves. Promises were about flesh and blood. They didn’t “remember” by drawing up mental images. If a Hebrew man wanted to remember his wedding day, he had another wedding—invited guests, dressed in fine clothing, arranged a ceremony, prepared a feast. Weddings were about people and celebration. Even their concept of eternity was more concrete, like the view from horizon to horizon. They needed to see it, touch it, taste it, to understand it. It seems strange, perhaps even a little backward, to our heady Western culture. But there’s a certain beauty to this active, physical language, and a fullness we often miss.
To the Ancient Hebrews, there was no such thing as “presence” apart from a face. For a person to be present in the room, in the moment, he had to show his face. He had to look people in the eye. If you’ve stood in an elevator with strangers, you know the weight and intimacy of presence and how fiercely you avoid it. You don’t make eye contact. Your gaze brushes the door, the floor numbers, the carpet. You might smile into the middle distance, but you don’t look at the other people in the elevator. Walk the streets of New York and you’ll feel the same. No one will look you in the eye. There are too many people to see, so you’ll brush shoulders and pass on. You’re not present to each other at all. The Hebrews didn’t merely occupy the same tents or travel in the same caravans. According to the language of the Old Testament, they hid their faces, turned their faces to each other, spoke face to face. If Abraham wanted to be sure you were with him, truly engaged in the place and time you shared, he would say something like, “Give me your face.”
I find this kind of presence surprisingly difficult on the average day.
I’m brushing my teeth, looking in the mirror. I’m chopping apples or broccoli, sweeping the floor, pulling laundry out of the dryer. I’m answering a text message or an email, vacuuming, wiping up spilled ketchup. And so often, my children are talking at me, flitting about in my peripheral vision while my eyes are focused elsewhere. We share the same room, the same table, but I am not present, and they do not have my face.
Thornton Wilder addresses this failing in the final act of Our Town. Emily, now dead, begs the Stage Manager to relive one precious day of her life, and she chooses her twelfth birthday. It’s a snowy February, and her parents are up early, her mother setting out her birthday presents and rushing to fry bacon for the family breakfast. Emily enters the scene, carrying the knowledge of the fourteen intervening years, and marvels at how young her parents look. She opens her gifts while her mother cooks, facing the audience over the stove.
This is what her mother did every day. It was good work, work that had to be done, but Emily feels the urgency of the moment. She cries,
“Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.”
Her mother goes on cooking, telling Emily to hurry and eat her breakfast. Emily breaks down. “I can’t. I can’t go on,” she says. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.”
Do you know how it feels to have someone ask you how you are, to look you right in the eye as you answer, to listen until you finish speaking? Is there anything quite like it? When the listener’s focus never drifts to her phone, never flits to the clock, when his feet never shuffle in impatience? When he gives you his face, when he is wholly with you?
When our children do that trick on the bike or that leap off the swing for the thousandth time, all the while begging us to “Look! Look at me!” When our friends say, “I’m okay,” and we see that it isn’t so. When our spouse passes through the room, silent as a stranger. Can we give them all our attention? Are we available to the people with whom we share meals and cars and church pews? What would it take to offer the suffering ones, the eager ones, the unseen, the buoyant, the full light and glory of our faces?
A single friend of mine talks about her struggle with feeling that every choice could be the one that leads her to her future husband. She fears making a mistake, fears missing “it,” because she didn’t seize every opportunity to meet new people. She has to turn those thoughts off, she says, or she’d go crazy. I can sympathize. When someone whose children are grown admonishes you to enjoy the years you’re in, you’re convinced of the wisdom of their words. At the same time, you’re tired. Knowing the significance of ordinary moments and the power of choice can be an overwhelming burden. As Wilder points out, “The strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.”
But maybe, in defiance of the endless tasks that busy our hands, the endless pulls on our attention, maybe, a little more today than yesterday, we can bring to bear the full weight of our presence on the beautiful people around us. Maybe we can find the time to give them our faces.
Photo courtesy of Jade Payne.