There are substitutes for many things in life, but time is not one of them. There is no way to make up for lost time, despite our constant attempts. How often we try to recreate a moment, only to finally realize, “I guess you had to be there.” There simply is nothing that can replace time, and how we spend ours, and who we spend it with, will have a greater impact on our lives than anything else.
Today I am not there. I am in Kansas, far away across the Mississippi, and I wish more than anything to be home. I got the message last night from my wife that things were not going well. Everything I had feared would happen, and prayed would not, happened anyway. Things I never dreamed of happening happened anyway. My family was encountering turbulence, and I was not there to help. My wife needs me. My children need me. I am not there. No matter what I do when I get home, I was not there last night. Not that I could have done anything to change the situation, but I could have been there. Today, I am not there.
Today, I am there. There is here. I am in Kansas, at a United Methodist Leadership Institute with six other people. We have traveled together, eaten together, shared stories together, and been together. There is no substitute for this. When I attended this conference last year, I came home feeling that one of the biggest benefits of the time spent in Kansas was the sense of energized connection that I felt with that group of people. The little moments we shared, the laughter, the confusion, the worry, all of it brought us together in a way that only time can do. There is no substitute. Either you were there, or you weren’t. And I was there. And I am there again. Today, I am there.
The problem with life is that you never really know the when. You’re lucky if you can figure out there where, and if you’ve done that, then you just stay there and be. They say that the trick to being at the right place at the right time is just to find the right place and hang around there for a while. This is true. Every day I ask my children what they did at school. Every day I get very little response. But sometimes, some very once in a while times, they actually tell me something real. Some days they tell me about an incident on the playground when they felt upset. Some days they open up to me about something on their minds. Some days we connect, and I feel true joy. But I have to be there 365 days a year in order to get to the 10 days that the magic happens. You can’t plan it. You can’t force it. There’s no telling which day is the day that something happens, something changes. You just have to be there. Every. Single. Day.
As a musician, I am hyper-aware of the merits of being there. Have you ever been to a concert? Have you ever tried to look up that concert on YouTube later? Or even (I won’t tell) recorded some of it on your phone to watch later? How is that recording? Did it sound as good as being there live? Did that recording capture the energy that was in the room? A few weeks ago I was trying to describe this incredible performance I had seen at the Grand Ole Opry. The band Striking Matches came out, clearly exhausted from what had been a whirlwind couple of days, and they performed what I can only describe as one of the best performances I have ever seen. The adrenaline coursing through them as they almost attacked those guitars imbued the performance with an energy that was teetering on the edge of madness, and left me on my feet screaming for more. It was something I will never forget. And then the person I was trying to explain it to said, “Oh, yeah, here’s that performance on YouTube.” And we watched it. And it seemed small and hollow. I guess you had to be there.
No camera, no microphone, no skype session, no postcard, no hologram projection will ever take the place of just being there. Show up. Go to things. Be with people. Feel their presence. Nothing lasts forever, not even us, and there is no greater regret in life than realizing that you missed it, because you just weren’t there.