Practicing Presence

One thing that I appreciate about Spanish culture is the value it places on relationship. For Spaniards, seeing an event through to its natural completion is generally considered more important than constraining the event within set time limits. In America, for example, it would be rude to show up late to a meeting because it would imply that you don’t respect the other person’s time. In Spain showing up late is completely acceptable, but it would be offensive to leave early because it would suggest that you don’t value the time you’re spending with that person. In other words, relationship is more important than productivity.

I’ve seen so many examples of this value embedded within the culture. There’s the dos besos greeting that everyone gives to everyone else upon entering or leaving a room. It takes time, and it forces you to acknowledge the presence of every single person there. There’s the slow service at restaurants so that people can linger and converse for hours. It drives Americans crazy, but the Spanish would just call it “leisurely.” I recently hung out with a Spanish girl downtown, and she walked me to my bus stop and waited with me for 15 minutes for the bus to come. I knew she was late to meet someone else and told her she could go. She responded, “Why? Are you tired of me?” While I was worried about wasting her time, she wanted to show me how much she valued mine by honoring me with her presence.

Of course, there are downsides to this as well. There’s the extreme difficulty of making concrete plans and the uncertainty of whether I can sneak out of church when I’ve only been there for 2.5 hours. But as an American, living in Spain has challenged me to reevaluate my priorities. Am I treating my time with people as a privilege, or am I thinking ahead to the next thing I need to get done? And along those lines, how am I treating God? Do I give him my complete focus and attention in my quiet times? Am I generous in my time with him, or do I fit him into whatever windows I can find within the day?

Embracing these aspects of my adopted culture illuminates my own cultural blind spots and shows me how much I have to learn. In the midst of the unpredictability and chaos that is missionary life, I want to focus on being present. I don’t want to think about my time here as temporary and miss out on what God has set before me, right here and right now.