Image or presence?

By Leo Campos

My stepfather was one of those larger than life individuals. It was just the way he was. He would walk into a room and commandeer it. I am not sure he would do it on purpose; I used to think it was a natural outgrowth of being used to having his orders obeyed. He was born in Argentina of English parents. In his late teens or early twenties (sometime after World War II) he jumped on a Triumph bike and drove the 1,000 miles from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo in search of fame and fortune. Argentina at that time had the highest GDP in the world, while Brazil was barely waking up. On paper this seemed like an unwise move and he told me how often his friends in Argentina laughed at his decision, asking if he was going to Brazil to help the “banana bending” industry. Just think of how Brazil was portrayed in Carmen Miranda movies and you will see that such stereotypes were widespread.

The trip itself would probably make a good movie – there were no reliable roads between Brazil and Argentina in those days. He had to rough it for the 1,000 mile trip. He risked it to reach a country with a language he did not speak and very foreign culture. How different were the countries? Well, he tells me that he was shocked the first time he saw a black person – Argentina simply never had the levels of slavery associated with the rest of the New World.

My stepfather by that time had already developed a level of certainty which enabled him to trust his instincts. This is a man who, while working on the railroad as a young teen (no child labor laws back then!), would risk his earnings in dice games – and frequently double his income. Every successful decision, in turn, gave him greater self-confidence to take further chances. The more success he accumulated the more he developed what I call an expectation of certainty. It was a tangible force. This force enabled him to find the strength to work against pretty phenomenal odds to accomplish what he set his mind to. Certainly the success came with much hard work and many sacrifices, but the hard work almost seemed inconsequential – it was simply inferior to his will.

How much of this commanding presence was really presence and how much of it was self-image? Self-image is how we perceive ourselves as objects of others’ attention. For me to be aware of how you see me, requires that I create a fantasy, an abstraction – I have to engineer an artificial “me” so I can become an object to myself – taken to its logical extremes you get the frivolities of high fashion. Presence, on the other hand, is indefensible and independent of external factors. It is a purely, or almost purely, subjective state. “I am this.” I am what I am.

These two poles of self-awareness are not mutually exclusive. A strong presence will probably create a strong self-image. A strong self-image will most likely create a strong presence. But the approach to it is different. If you develop a strong sense of presence, then you will not be too concerned with protecting self-image, but the reverse is not necessarily true.

It is instructive here to look at the encounter between Jesus and the centurion (Luke 7). The centurion is used to authority, and he recognizes it in Jesus. On paper this seems like an unwise move, much like my stepfather’s. Why would a centurion come seeking the help of a Jewish peasant, when he could undoubtedly have chosen some more qualified medical doctor? Just say a word and it will be so. The centurion must have been an excellent leader, for he could see the potential beneath the external appearances. He came to Jesus because, using whatever methods of decision he used, he simply expected to be right.

So here’s the catch: what are you seeing in the world today? Where are you looking? What does this say about you? What potential are you seeing? Do you see potential for good or for ill? Are you expecting to be right, or expecting to be wrong? Most importantly are you leaning more on your presence or your image? What 1,000 mile trip are you embarking on? What will you find at the end?

Brother Leo Campos is the co-founder of the Community of Solitude , a non-canonical, ecumenical contemplative community. He worked as the “tech guy” for the Diocese of Virginia for 6 years before going to the dark side (for-profit world).

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