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This Holiday Season, Let’s Give the Gift of Being Present

3 minute read
Singh is Executive Director of the Aspen Institute's Religion & Society Program and author of The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. He is an Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity with Columbia University and the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations.

Our society teaches us to express our love by giving presents. This reality rings especially true during this time of year.

The National Retail Federation expects U.S. holiday retail sales to exceed $615 billion this year, yet another increase in how much Americans spend on holiday gifts.

The growing amount of money we are spending on gifts reflects a growing economy. But let’s not delude ourselves. The fact that our economy is growing does not necessarily mean that we are progressing as a society.

One problem inherent in our gift-giving is that we think thoughtful presents take the place of our thoughtful presence. This year, let’s share a different gift with those we love—our full, authentic selves.

In a modern world dominated by smart phones and tablets, text messages, and emails, we tend to be more absent than present. Our bodies are in one place, yet our hearts and minds are somewhere else. We are constantly distracted, and we are constantly making a choice to distract ourselves.

Professor Omid Safi describes our collective malady as “the dis-ease of being busy.” And as he points out, this dis-ease is destroying our relationships.

We all know that there’s a trade off. For every minute we choose to spend in virtual reality, we lose a minute to work on our actual selves. It seems to me like an inverse relationship: The more connected we are with the digital world, the less connected we are from one another.

No material gift can replace your being present for those you love. And to someone who loves you, your attention and presence is the one unique gift that no one else can offer.

The distractions of our high-paced world are not just damaging for our relationships – they are also destroying our spiritual selves. We have become addicted to such distractions and have become afraid of spending time alone with ourselves. Most of us are uncomfortable with the practice of reflection and introspection.

It feels like the more connected we are with the digital world, the less connected we are with ourselves.

It is difficult for us to break through our habits of distraction and absent-mindedness, especially when we know the world is at our fingertips. We delude ourselves into living a virtual life, dictated by the ups and downs of the virtual world.

This holiday season, let’s give ourselves—and those we love most—a gift that cannot be imitated, replicated, or replaced by anyone else in the world, and one that is more fulfilling than anything you could possibly find in a store. Let’s give our full authentic selves; let’s practice being mindful and wholly present when in the presence of those we love.

In recognizing the brevity and beauty of life, let’s recognize every breath we inhale as an opportunity to be fully present, and every breath we exhale as an opportunity to share our best selves with our loved ones. It’s about time we give one another the presence that we all want and deserve.

We are often told that it is in giving that we receive. Let’s turn this cliché into a reality this holiday season. Let’s offer our wholehearted presence to others, and in doing so, let’s reward our own selves with the gift of wholeness.

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Write to Simran Jeet Singh at sjs2180@columbia.edu

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.