Growing up, I knew a guy a number of years older than myself who saw opportunity in every corner of life. He could turn a simple car ride from school to the grocery store into a party, and once at the grocery store he would split up the shopping list among the four of us and turn a regular old shopping experience into a complicated game of stealth and intrigue. Sometimes he would disappear for hours or even the entire day, and nobody would be able to say where he was, but nobody was ever concerned. Other times, he showed an uncanny ability to come over uninvited, but never unwelcome.
Mr. Spontaneous, as I liked to think about him, was fun. I wanted to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.
As I got older, and Mr. Spontaneous became less of a role model and more of a peer, there happened to be a moment where I got a privileged peek at his weekly planner. Color-coded and detailed to the quarter-hour, his days were managed like a work of art.
I didn’t believe it at first. Mr. Spontaneous, who seemed to live life on a whim, actually had structure and routine to his days? Nonsense. There was no way his unyielding sense of freedom could have come from such careful planning.
I came to realize that Mr. Spontaneous was not trying to be spontaneous at all. It just kind of happened naturally. Through his planner, he could gain a sense of what needed to be done in that day and what could wait for tomorrow. Reading between the color-coded lines, one could see the people and places he was choosing to make a priority. Mr. Spontaneous organized his life with spontaneity as an afterthought, instead choosing to pursue a practice of presence.
Another example. Although ideas of spontaneity and presence are not necessarily religious, the Christian scriptures are a testament to the spontaneous power of presence. Take the overlooked prologue in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus’ apostles had just come back from a grand and exhausting adventure, and Jesus makes plans for the team to travel to a remote location for a sort of rejuvenating retreat. But, upon arrival, there is a massive crowd waiting, and Jesus was moved “by compassion” to change course and start teaching the crowd.
(I’m surprised the apostles didn’t full-out revolt at this point. This episode is akin to arriving for a week-long vacation in Hawaii only to be get a call from the office manager that there is more work that must be done immediately.)
Jesus was present to the needs of the exhausted apostles, and so spontaneously announced plans to take a break. But he was also present to the needs of the mob yearning to hear from him, and so he spontaneously announced a change of plans.
I think that spontaneity, the creative expression of being present, has political implications as well as being a personal trait. Just like how well-meaning religious folk can overemphasize the Genesis myth of origins (i.e. entrenched creation/evolution debates) or the eschatological expectations of Revelation (i.e. apocalyptic doom-sayers proclaiming the imminent end of the world), I think our politics are often stuck on visions of the past and future, at the neglect of the present.
People trying to change “the system” tend to cast their hopes on a romantized version of the past, or a fantastic utopia of the future. This is despite the fact that flaws of “the system” are often inherited from outdated traditions of the past, or rational-yet-overbaked blueprints for the future. Needless to say, traditions and rational expectations are important, but they must intersect in a rugged commitment to the possibilities of the present.
I don’t know what presence-based politics looks like, but be rest assured that the next candidate to look like Mr. – or Ms. – Spontaneity will get my vote.
But for now, I think it is a noble enough goal to pursue a sort of spontaneous presence in each of our personal lives.
That means time-management of the sort that doesn’t divide between “busy time” and “free time.” It rather contains the sort of flexibility that makes sure what needs to get done gets done, while no great opportunity goes missed because it was not on the schedule. Being spontaneously present means showing up a half hour late to work because of an incredible conversation with a friend, and once at work scraping the revered to-do list because there is a tremendous offer that cannot wait until tomorrow.
Especially in our technologically advanced world, with advanced communication and transportation networks, spontaneous presence also means place-management. It is choosing (as much as we are able) to live, work and getting a bite to eat in neighborhoods where we are likely to be interrupted by the people we care about. It means walking or running city sidewalks without the iPod and earbuds, in tune to the voices that don’t realize they are talking to you. And lest I forget I am an Oregonian-wandering-in-Chicago, these same thoughts apply towards being present to the wonders of nature as much as they do people.
And all that means developing the eyes that see possibilities on top of responsibilities, the mind to discern which commitments actually open doors, the guts that can stomach a roller-coaster change of plans.
There is something initially terrifying about being present. The past and future, the states of being faraway and not-paying-attention, are safe places. Vulnerability to the present means giving up a measure of control. Anything can happen. But Mr. Spontaneous understood this, Mr. Spontaneous was fun, and I want to be more like Mr. Spontaneous.