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Are you all there when you are there?

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“One thing about him, when he was there, he was all there.”  

I was listening to Dr. Gibson Winter, then professor for Christianity and Society at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Winter had this wonderful way of sharing an aside - an “oh by the way” story - which would invariably have a meaning all to itself, staying in my mind long after the words of the lecture had been snuffed out by the stuffy air of Stuart Hall.
On this particular occasion, he was describing a colleague, whose name I’ve forgotten. The man, the subject of his anecdote, was notorious for getting so immersed in his work that he would on occasion be a tad late for a faculty meeting or even his own lecture. He was the proverbial absent-minded professor: almost at times comical, yet respected and beloved. Upon arriving, he would light up the room, engaging others in lively conversation, making it easy for them to overlook his occasional tardiness.
Then Dr. Winter capsulated his description of his colleague in that one phrase: “When he was there, he was all there.”
I could visualize this man; indeed, I felt as though I already knew him. You know him or her, too. These rare individuals are all there when they are there.
They are the ones you wait on at the theater, or save a seat for at the restaurant, or strain your neck for as you anxiously anticipate their arrival at the ball game. “Where could he be?” you ask. “Do you think she remembered the address?” you wonder. “Did he get so immersed in his research that he forgot our engagement?” you question.
And you want them to be there.
I could see Dr. Winter’s friend arriving with disheveled hair, wearing his flannel coat, wrinkled shirt, and blue jeans. He opens his arms wide to embrace his friends, apologizes for being late, and smiles as he asks how they are. And he means it.
And suddenly everyone’s little measure of agitation evaporates as they grin in return. He’s there now, all there. Wherever this person is, he lives that moment to the fullest. And like moths attracted to light, people naturally drift in his direction.
I’ve often wanted to be more like that man, whoever he was. Unfortunately, I haven’t always been all there, once I was there. Too often I’ve been distracted by the place I had come from or the people I would see next. I’ve brought the problems of the past into the present or pre-played the worries of the future into the now. And in short, I wasn’t there.
I’ve learned, ever so slowly, little by little, that life is lived in the moment, or it isn’t lived at all; if I’m not here, I’m either in the past - which is no more - or I’m in the future, which is not yet. If I’m still wandering around in the hallways of the past, lost in a maze of regret, or trying to catapult myself from the present into the next time zone, which can’t be entered until it arrives, it’s not simply that I’m not here: I’m actually nowhere.
Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock - lingering on the outside looking in, fearful of the present, doubting, wondering, questioning whether he has “the strength to force the moment to its crises?” anxiously awaiting the future, mistakenly believing that, “There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet” - we miss the thrill and excitement, victories and defeats, struggles and accomplishments of the present when we aren’t fully alive in the moment, willing to risk ourselves in it.
Life must be grasped, breathed, and lived for all it is now: “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24), the Psalmist proclaimed. And Jesus warned, “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries” (Matthew 6:34).
So, with you, Dr. Gibson Winter’s friend, whoever you are, O Captain my Captain, we declare: Carpe Diem. We knew you would finally arrive, at last. Have a seat and stay awhile, for after all, now that you are here, you are all here.
And at last, we join you.
Editor’s note: Contact David B. Whitlock, Ph.D. at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com or visit his new website, www.Davidbwhitlock.com.