The Long and Short of It

Mission has a way of giving you new perspectives. I’ve been blessed to go to Alaska the past few years with some wonderful people. We get the chance to pour energy and enthusiasm into some small villages where people manage to get by on less than what others have in this world. We develop relationships that carry us through the year when we are away from one another. It’s a long trip to get there, and it always feels an even longer trip to get home. But the relationships make the distance and difficulty worth it.

In essence, all of us are connected in ‘long distance’ relationships. These dear and special people would not be in my life had I never left home and discovered them. These incredible ties would not have been bound together had we all just stayed where we were and not ventured forth. These relationships would not have developed without covering the distance between us.

So I look forward to returning. I look forward to seeing smiles and having hugs that bring us back together again. One of the the things we do when we are away from those we care about is to envision what it will be like when the days and miles are passed and reunion finally takes place. I myself am prone to previewing such moments over and over again. I try to imagine what it will be like to lay eyes and hands on one another in our little tribe. Mostly my reveries in this regard do not match reality. All the rehearsed lines and ideas go straight out of mind and the moment just has to be what it is—good, but never really living up to the ideal I’ve created and played over and over again in my mind’s eye.

People who are making a go of long-distance relationships will know what I’m talking about. There are moments of connection that take place between being together. There are phone calls or chat messages or even letters that convey the feelings that are taking place. There is always a sense of longing. There are always daydreams that fill the miles and hours that separate. Some people do well with such things—others, no so much. A friend recently said, “long distance … sucks!!” Truth be told, that’s exactly what most of us think about relating over too much time and space apart.

We just know that if we were together it would all be alright. We anticipate that being in another’s presence will make everything as it should be. We are eager to embrace and engage and to be fully present to the other.

But that, too, is not always the case. It is possible to be in each other’s physical presence and still be distant.

Distance can be defined in a number of ways. The most common is physical separation. It’s a lot of miles between Tennessee and Alaska; it takes several flights to get there. Time zones and layovers are ways we think of distance. We can measure distance in ‘frequent flier miles.’ Distance can also be when we hold one another ‘at arm’s length,’ an expression of emotional distance that denotes a safety zone. We can withhold ourselves in ways that are not even visible for the world to see, but are nevertheless very real. It is entirely possible to be right next to someone and there still be distance present. Indeed, perhaps there is no distance more disconcerting than the one we cannot easily see or measure. Perhaps there is no distance more confusing than the one that arises in the presence of the one sitting closest to us.

I recently experienced that in a way that made a profound impression on me. I was in Alaska, finally reunited with people I have served with and come to know and love dearly over the past few years. The physical proximity was real; all of us had journeyed the miles and gathered again. And yet, in a single moment I felt the distance and absence so intensely that it brought me to tears. Even this time together was going to give way to scattering again; even close moments of community were foreshadowed by the awareness of distance that was going to be only a few days away. Both the distance and the closeness were impressed on my soul simultaneously. I felt strangely betwixt and between. I was ‘here and now,’ and yet also feeling ‘then and there.’ I felt scattered across time and space in a way that I did not see coming. It caught me unaware and disturbed me with an intensity that was frightening. Suddenly I was not sure how to handle either the presence or the absence of these people who are part of me.

In my own feeble way I tried to express this to our ‘family.’ I reminded them, or perhaps I was more reminding myself, that we only have ‘moments’ in this life. I cannot relive the past, as I would love to do sometimes; we have shared wonderful memories together and I would live them again if possible. That “if possible,” of course, is the operative phrase—it is not possible. Nor can I ‘pre-live’ the future, which I always want to imagine to be better than the present. I have to live this present moment in the place where I find myself. Even with the distance looming, I wanted and needed to be as fully present as possible! I could feel the moments ticking away; I could feel the farewells ahead; I could sense the distance growing within me. In a peculiar way I had both the long and short of it rubbing together at the same time inside myself. Time and space were out of joint, and so was I. Truth be told, I am still working on sorting all of this out, even though I’m miles away and time has passed.

Here and now. Then and there. Long and short. Present and absent. All possibilities for us as we live this life together—and sometimes I feel them all at once!

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