No Power Like Presence

By Seán Mullan

(From the April - June 2018 issue of VOX)

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He was clearly well on in years but his grip was firm. The big rough hand shook mine and as he looked at me I could see his eyes were damp. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he said, “she was a mighty woman.” I thanked him and he melted back into the group with others who had come to do the same.

I knew who he was. He had done occasional work in the garden for my mother. It was she that we had gathered to remember. And he wanted to be there. She was almost 90; death was not unexpected but it was still sudden, difficult and sad. In the hard time people, as they so often do, came good. Neighbours, family, friends, colleagues came together at various gatherings, the wake, the funeral mass and the crematorium service. There were tears, hugs, laughs, warm handshakes, food, stories, drink, kind words, songs, and memories. Lots of memories.

Not long afterwards, a public spat between two formerly famous people managed to make international news headlines. Somehow it was deemed to be an issue of global significance. The issue centred on a message of condolence on a bereavement, sent publicly on social media, and an equally public rejection of the message. Having just come through our own bereavement, I was left reflecting on the grand canyon that exists between a public tweet of condolence and the power of a handshake with a quiet word and a damp eye.

I was left reflecting on the grand canyon that exists between a public tweet of condolence and the power of a handshake with a quiet word and a damp eye.

Social media has turned expressing condolence into a spectator sport. When someone well known dies now, there is a competition to express the extent of the emotional distress being experienced. If “X” is “gutted” then “Y” is “absolutely gutted” and “Z” just “doesn’t have words”. And their distress is not just to be communicated to the family or friends of the deceased but to everyone. Why tell one person when you can tell hundreds, thousands or even millions about the extent of your emotional distress?

Time was when we joked about politicians who would turn up at local funerals, not because they knew the person, but because they wanted to be seen there. Votes, not sympathy, were the prime motivation. We are all politicians these days. Social media can do that. We find ourselves doing things in a way we never would if social media didn’t enable us. Imagine receiving in the post a photocopy of a sympathy card I had sent to a bereaved family that you didn’t even know. Your first word would probably be “why” and your second would be “weird.” Why does anyone else need to know that you’re sending condolences? A public tweet is the same as a photocopied sympathy card except that it only takes seconds, costs nothing and goes to everyone. It is less than worthless compared to the quiet handshake and the words of condolence that take hours, cost something and are private and personal.

Technology has its place. My 89-year-old mother was a dab hand at FaceTime and Skype and used it to stay in touch with her family around the globe. Our family received plenty of tech-carried messages of sympathy on my mother’s death and they were greatly appreciated. But nothing that technology can offer can replace the power of presence.

In our workplace, we have a hierarchy of communication that we try to ensure governs all interactions between staff, customers and suppliers. At the bottom of the list is a group text message – only to be used for communicating basic factual information – times, dates, venues. Next come various forms of communication with the phone-call in second place. But top of the list by a long way is face-to-face conversation – talking, listening and looking. It’s what we humans do best. Nothing that technology has produced can come near to it.

Given my mother’s age, there weren’t many people expressing condolence on social media. But the kind faces, damp eyes, gentle words and warm handshakes and hugs far surpassed high tech. Those who gave them had nothing to gain from being there but had much to give. Their presence had power. Ours does too. It’s not cute, clever or slick but it’s what we were made for.
 

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Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.