Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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The importance of being present

By on September 5, 2011

shapeimage_2-7One of my favorite spaces of contemplation these days is the space where I am a parent. My sweet little girl is starting to grow up. At three months old she’s moved from the lethargic-but-cute baby stage to the look-at-me-please stage. As she grows, we’re watching her personality form and blossom.

This week, she’s teaching me about the importance of present. I can no longer get away with reading a book or looking at my iPhone when I hold her. While she’s sometimes content to play on her own, at other times she needs undivided attention. Eye contact has become all important.

This week on NPR’s Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett interviewed Sherry Turkle, who directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The interview was about making technology a little more human. It was about unplugging, or rather, learning when and how to “plug in” or “unplug.” My favorite part was the reminder that we need to be present with each other, especially with our children. That putting down a phone (or better, turning it off) lets those we are with know they are more important. It creates room for meaningful conversations and interactions.

During my time living in East Africa, there was a way of being that I found foreign to western culture. It was a way of being present. If you were on your way to meet a friend, and ran into another person along the way, you didn’t rush off for fear of being late. That would be like telling the person you encountered that the person you were going to meet was more important than they were. And when you showed up late, it was always understood. Life had happened along the way.

Technology is important to our lives, but it is not all important. I hesitantly admit that my daughter already has her own “iPhone.” Its a cast off from a family member and its sole purpose is to play the tibetan waterfall soundtrack that helps her sleep. But she already loves the bling of technology. She stares at iPhones and cameras that take her picture. She even “talks” to her grandparents via video chats, mimicking their facial expressions and sending digital smiles. But even in this technology-loving family, we’re trying to tread carefully. We’re hoping to teach our daughter how to unplug as well.

Too often, we stay plugged in. We don’t let life happen along the way. We are so accessible to everyone and everything that no one has our full attention. Life is better lived when we learn the importance of eye contact.