On the eve before my youngest son’s first day of second grade at a new school, I spent the better part of an hour cuddled up next to him before bed, listening to him as he discussed his fears and worries with me, including everything from getting lost, to having a mean teacher, to dealing with playground bullies and worrying about whether the kids at the new school would accept him or not.
The following morning, after what I can only assume was a restless night since he woke up about two hours early, he had a bounce to his step, complete with a positive attitude and a sense of courage to head to his new school. When we got to school that morning, I parked about a block away so that the three of us — he, my youngest daughter, and I — could walk together and talk about any last-minute hesitations. We held hands and took our steps slowly, enjoying the crisp, late summer morning, and those last few moments of freedom before the bell tolled the official start of the school year.
We paused, just before entering the building so that I could take our traditional first-day-of-school picture of him and his sister. You know the shot. It’s the one that all our parent friends inevitably plaster all over our timelines during the first week of September. After the pic, we embraced tightly for one more hug, and I leaned down to give him a kiss, savoring the moment, knowing full well that, before long, those kisses and hugs in front of the school will likely disappear. As I watched my babies walk into the building, I sighed, feeling the release of yet another summer full of memories slip away.
My “Hallmark moment” was interrupted by what I did next.
Reaching into my pocket, I withdrew my phone, and as I walked, my focus turned to choosing the perfect settings on Instagram for the picture so I could post the pic to all my friends and absorb the likes as they rolled in, validating my worth as a parent.
But, after I posted the picture, a strange sense of remorse crept in, and it dawned on me that, as of late (as of the last few years, really), I’ve been taking pictures of every last moment, from the trivial to the sublime, as well as everything in between.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this endeavor, seeing as how one of my favorite pastimes involves getting the family together, pulling up the hard drive, broadcasting it to the Apple TV and going through each folder, month by month, reminiscing and recounting stories of our favorite memories.
Basically, every time I take a pic of a family moment, it’s like I’m collecting data for future iterations of reminiscence. However, there was something different about this moment.
I began wondering if I’ve been “chasing memories” — deliberately manipulating our activities and behaviors so as to capture the perfect shot, the one that everyone in my friends list will be ooh-ing and ah-ing over for days to come, as I craft the perfect profile or cover photo.
The more pervasive social media becomes, the more frequently I seem to seek out “photo ops” and suddenly, what were once special moments now become less about savoring the experience of being together. They become more about capturing the perfect light, the perfect pose, the perfect smile — the perfect mediated representation of how I want others to view my family. I have begun looking at life, not as a series of moments to be treasured, but as images to be collected, edited, and republished for everyone to share.
After this realization, I decided to try a little experiment on myself later that afternoon.
I arrived to the school to pick up my kids, where I took up residence on a rock wall under the flagpole, with the early September sun warming my back. As I glanced up, noticing the flag waving gently in the breeze and shimmering with translucence when it passed in front of the sun’s rays, my immediate thought was about what an awesome picture it would make for Instagram. I resisted the urge and let it fade, leaving my phone parked within the folds of my pocket, and this act of letting go produced an involuntary, effortless smile.
As the other parents arrived, I looked around, taking inventory of what I noticed. At least 8 out of every 10 parents had their faces buried in endless scrolling, while the remaining two were grandparents, who seemed content to simply wait patiently, sans electronics, and both of them displayed the same effortless grin.
The bell rang, and the children filed out, their eyes darting back and forth, scanning the crowd for their parents’ faces. As eyes locked, the children squealed with delight, their little legs sprinting across the concrete. As the 8 out of 10 parents whose faces were previously transfixed on their phones saw their children, each affixed their phones to arms’ reach to capture a shot of their little ones running, arms outstretched. Several of these parents couldn’t get the moment captured in time and ordered their children to back up and do it again.
Then, I saw my little boy walking out. Our eyes locked, my smile became his.
“Daddy!” he shouted gleefully, his arms stretched out before him. Without a phone occupying my hands, our arms met, and I swept him up, where I was met with one of the most memorable, joy-inducing hugs I’ve ever felt.
“Daddy, I missed you today,” he whispered softly as his grip on my shoulders tightened and a euphoric chill crawled its way up my spine.
“I missed you too, buddy,” I replied, “and I can’t wait to hear you tell me about your first day on the way home.”
I’m not a technophobe, and you’ll never catch me advocating for the destruction of smartphones, nor will you ever see me permanently deactivate my Facebook or Instagram accounts. I love the power of social media and how it connects humanity closer than ever before in human history.
What I learned from this experiment was the difference between “chasing memories” and simply enjoying moments in the full resolution of life as those moments unfold.
There are certainly times when a photo or video is necessary, like the big moments: first steps, first day of kindergarten, first Christmas/birthday/date/drive, etc. The big ones only come once in a lifetime, and recording those moments for posterity makes sense.
But for all the other times, we need to question our motivation, and we need to ask ourselves whether our attention is better spent on capturing the moment or being an active part of that moment. Pictures may be fun to look at when we want to reminisce, but later in life, our children are more likely to remember how they felt about the active roles we play in shaping such moments—something a picture could never provide.
In the waning moments of one’s life, I highly doubt anyone has ever regretted not taking enough pictures. I’m reasonably certain there are plenty who have regretted not taking more time to be present with their loved ones.
On that “experimental” first day of school, seeing my kids somehow felt richer and more colorful. It was substantially more satisfying to me as a parent, and the memory of that moment has a significantly higher resolution than any screen could ever provide.
Perhaps a picture or video would have afforded me the ability to revisit the moment repeatedly, but the memory I now carry in my mind is quite possibly the greatest picture I never took.
Even though this memory is now about five years old, I had the opportunity to revisit it just before attending my son’s middle school concert. Before our family left the house, I paused, thinking about grabbing the camera, but ended my contemplation early when I recalled this story and the way it felt.
After my son’s band concluded their performance, I glanced around the gym, and I couldn’t help noticing that around half of the parents/grandparents present chose to experience their kids’ performances through a tiny screen.
Part of me wishes I could share this story with every last one of them, and an even bigger part of me yearns to show them how it feels to experience life in unlimited resolution.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post.
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