Interaction with others, fellow human beings, is generally valuable, and the more so the deeper your relationship with them is already. We spend time with our lovers and friends, our children and parents, and the mere being together with them has some value: it's their presence, interacting with them, that makes a difference from other occupations (such as being at work, talking to relative strangers).

Absence, the inverse of presence, seems to have a corresponding negative value. But where do either valuations come from? In what sense is presence as such desirable? (It's not so difficult to see why it is their presence, rather than that of others, that we care about. But exactly how valuable is direct presence, and why?) It seems that it is not merely a matter of quantity, that the value we see in the presence of those we care about does not scale with its duration: it's not necessarily so that being together for a longer time is therefore already more valuable. And a relationship can be healthy and deep even over long periods of absence, be it punctured with small phases of being with each other, or even entirely without them. (Of course, relationships often cool down and even vanish after some time without any contact at all; it's a tricky question whether that is because the relationship wasn't so deep, then, after all, or whether its value has legitimately changed over time and thus has been reduced normally.)

From all this it seems that it's not presence or absence as such which have value: they're merely containers for what is actually important (and it doesn't even depend on the size of the container how we value their contents). And in the case of absence, it's not something bad in itself that's in the container, but a deprivation of something good: your life over these periods is lacking something that would be valuable if you just had it.

The presence of any one person in your life is an external, depends on external influences (influences, that is, which we cannot control). Certainly, it is up to us, to some degree, to nurture our relationships; not doing so is a neglect that invariably results in a reduced quality of our lives. (This comes to be felt most severely when we lose someone permanently; but it is clear enough also in the case of simple absence, which is characterized by some good chance to meet the respective person once more, get closer again to her or him.) The vagaries of life, however, tear us apart from those we care about often enough without leaving us a chance to prevent it. It may be for a few hours every day, or for a few days every once in a while, very much depending on your life's setup — usually this sort of absence results from the demands of professional life. It may be for long uninterrupted periods, such as when our children leave home for some distant place to live and work there. Periods of absence of these sorts we simply have to accept.

Absence, I have said, is a deprivation: you're not able to enjoy something that you might have enjoyed (if circumstances had been different, presumably). And although it is something dispreferred, it's not bad in a strict sense: it's something that depends on external fortune, on events and circumstances you can't control; in all situations which you can control, it would be less than excellent, to say the least, for you to act in a way that causes a deprivation of that sort to both you and your loved ones. What is bad in these cases, of course, is not the deprivation as such, but that you've produced it by our actions, or at least that you've let it happen and be. (Acting so as to deprive yourself of some good thing means to act in a way that harms you, reduces your fortunes; it's unwise, and acting unwise is something bad — especially if it becomes a habit.) On the other hand, a deprivation caused by external events you can't control, or often even influence, wouldn't actually be bad in that sense. Certainly, you disprefer it; and that precisely means that if you could control and influence, you would, or at least should, do as much as possible, as much as you can, to prevent such deprivation. But if, as per hypothesis, you can't, then in your actions there is nothing bad. Mere external happenings don't count as bad (or good) — for good and bad are that which makes your life more or less a good one, one worth living, and one worth having lived. (And what else could count as a criterion here?)

(Note that this does not merely include what you think is good, what feels good, at a given moment — the criterion is whether what you do actually is good: and that is not exhausted by your subjective perspective on things; for instance, it will certainly include the good of other people as well as your own, and in particular that of your loved ones.)

Absence of those we care about is not in itself bad; it's what you haven't done about it that makes it so — if there was anything you could have done. If not, then there's no point in whining (or complaining). In any case, and fortunately, there are always plenty of occasions where you can do something to enrich and deepen your relationships. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.