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Josh Misner, PhD

Mindful Living in a Distracted World

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Striking Realizations

The Greatest Picture I Never Took

Image result for parents on phones at concert

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.

The Bookmarks to Our Life Stories

fb_img_1428860458077_900858ba3edad2232d66bc617464e937.today-inline-largeThis week, the online world was introduced to a young man named Carter Gentle, a brave little boy with a congenital heart defect who has undergone multiple open-heart surgeries, and when looking at his chest riddled with scars, Carter cried when seeing them out of the fear of being judged by others as hideous or ugly. Carter’s dad, though, acted nobly by sharing this story online, so that his son could hear from the rest of the world how beautiful he is because of the stories his scars tell us about uncommon strength. In less than 24 hours, Carter had over half a million people reassure him that his scars were not only nothing to be ashamed of, but stories of which he should be proud. As of this writing, that number is in the millions.

As Carter’s story spread, others came forward to share their scar stories, as well as how they came to terms with what those scars represented to them. The sharing of this story has given way to a crucial conversation on the definition of beauty as it relates to personal “flaws,” and more importantly, how we, as a society, allow our culture to define what is flawed. These conversations have been ongoing in my family for the last seven years or so, thanks to one event that could be considered any parent’s nightmare. Continue reading “The Bookmarks to Our Life Stories”

Of Products, Perfection, and the Process of Parenting

255570_794709274363_186471642_nBedtime: A word representing that time of day for a parent that either inspires anticipation or instills dread. For a great many of us, the latter is the case, for when we announce, “It’s bedtime!” — our children often tap into some previously undiscovered energy reserve, which is then channeled into arguing, protesting, and if your children are like mine, the ancient ninja art of escape.

Sometimes, we give in, too tired ourselves to fight, and then they fall asleep in the most unlikely places: Continue reading “Of Products, Perfection, and the Process of Parenting”

Why I Will Never Carpe Diem Again

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“Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” The moment I heard those words fall from Mr. Keating’s lips in Dead Poets Society, I felt myself come alive. Even as a headstrong teenager, I knew Keating was right, and I set out to suck the marrow out of life, to seize each day, and to make it extraordinary. From that day forward, back in 1989, I committed myself to those two familiar words, made immortal through a near-extinct language: carpe diem. Continue reading “Why I Will Never Carpe Diem Again”

5 Steps Toward Parental Perfection

What do nearly all parents have in common with Heath Ledger’s Joker?  Take a look at the following quote:

a8cbd262a627a304e694027ae9f5b65f4c090c3145f558322492098b8d2bec2dWhat this quote from Ledger’s legendary portrayal of Batman’s nemesis does is perfectly encapsulate the essence of chaos, and what this has in common with most of us is the pursuit of perfection, for most of us wouldn’t know what to do with it, IF we ever caught it, but continue to chase it, we must.

Earlier today (thanks in part to HowToBeADad.com‘s post on Hindsight Parenting and how wise parents become when looking at our experiences in retrospect), I asked my wife what, if anything, she would advise our children someday, when the time comes for them to become parents.  Her response was a brilliantly simple as it was beautifully profound. Continue reading “5 Steps Toward Parental Perfection”

A Testament to Teachers & Social Media

About a month or so ago, I wrote an article in praise of my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Ray, partly because I was reminiscing about him with my daughter, explaining how he played a vital father-figure-esque role in my childhood, but also partly because of a case of mistaken identity.  At my daughter’s behest, I Googled Mr. Ray and found what I thought was his obituary, so I did what any of his former students would have done, considering his profound influence on our lives: I eulogized him on my site.

Not more than a few hours later, I received a message from Mr. Ray, correcting my blunder and noting that it was his brother’s obituary that I found.  See, his brother was also a teacher in the same city where I grew up, but also looked remarkably like the man I thought I remembered, so the mistake was understandable.  Nevertheless, I retracted the article immediately and rewrote it, but that was only the beginning of the story.

Today, I had the chance to spend some time with Mr. Ray, who still teaches elementary school to this day.  We met at a local coffee shop and bakery, settled into a dark corner on a couch in the back of the house, and lobbed stories back and forth in an effort to catch-up.  We swapped tales about life since our last meeting, nearly 30 years ago, and after that, we fished out our old stories from the dark recesses of our minds, dusted them off, and reminisced about playing battle ball, butts up, and ruthlessly difficult research-based trivia games.

As I reflect on the experience even now, I feel as though the meeting may have been a surreal dream, because it is almost unbelievable that, what started as a leisurely conversation with my daughter on our way to school about a month ago ended with a reunion among mentor and mentee, where I was able to introduce my children to the man from whom many of their lessons in morality, sportsmanship, and character originated.

We truly live in an amazing time, in which we have the powerful potential to connect with one another by way of the very tools that also threaten to separate us.  Let my story be a reminder that social media is a tool, just like a hammer.  As the old saying goes, to the little boy with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but to the mindful carpenter, the hammer can be used to create beauty.

If we are mindful of how we wield this tool, we may allow it fill our lives with the same grace and wonder as this stranger-than-fiction story provided me.

To Mr. Ray, thank you for allowing me to tell you a little bit about how much you meant to me, while I still had the chance.

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