Things I'll Say Along the Way: Be Here
Photo by Greg Westfall - All Rights Reserved
The first two months of being a father have been my greatest delight. Holding my son in my arms is more fulfilling than anything else I’ve experienced. Being a father is a simple, gentle kind of joy. I feel so at home in the role I play in my son’s life. I say this shortly after my son pooped all over my pants in the middle of the mall, so I know parenting is not without it’s moments of difficulty.
Now we’ve crossed over the two month threshold, and already Avai’s personality is bursting with vitality. His awareness is growing faster than his body is, which is a miraculous transformation in-and-of itself: Avai is putting on weight like he’s preparing for a title fight.
I’m now so aware of everything he’s perceiving. Recently we caught him watching Mad Men with us. I came back from the bathroom and he was relaxing on the floor with popcorn and a Coke. He is so attentive, it’s almost scary.
My little contemplative child stays awake just to look around the room, take it all in, and think about it. I’m watching him, in real time, construct the outlook he’s going to have on the world. I know it’s still premature to judge how he’s processing his experiences, until he has a further grasp on language and memory.
But as his dad, I’m ready. I’m participating in this. I want him to skip some of the lessons I’ve learned.
I won’t be able to make him think all the right things about the world. But I hope I can help him manage what he gives his attention to, so he can be more present in everything. Right now he can’t be anywhere but where we place him–I’m not even convinced he always knows he has hands. And he can’t be in any time but the present, because his sense of time is still fluid. I want to make sure Avai can most fully enjoy the beautiful world he’s been born into.
So here’s what I’ll say along the way.
GET OFF YOUR DANG PHONE
I don’t know what the device will be when you’re a teenager. Maybe by then, we’ll all have chips with projectors coming out of our hands, or something. Right now, though, our cell phones are killing us. I’ve heard how “sitting is the new smoking”, and everyone is now switching over to a standing desk so they don’t die at thirty-five. I guess sitting got a better agent, because last time I checked sitting wasn’t nearly as cool looking as smoking is. Anyway, I’m sure that within the next decade, we’ll say, “cell phones are the new sitting”. Because we’re losing a our attention spans to a three inch backlit piece of glass, and few people mind the loss.
Now before you think I’m just some grumpy dad telling you to get off my lawn, I will confess: son, I am the chief of mobile sinners. Here’s how bad it can get. I have needed to go to the bathroom, and I have held it much longer than is reasonable, because I am looking for my phone so I can entertain myself while I sit on the can. I don’t think I’m alone in having done this, but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous.
Cell phones are hurting our ability to connect. We can’t have ordinary conversations without intermissions, because we’re looking for the affirmation of new comments and notifications.
I started confronting this in my own life by putting my phone away from me when I was conversing with others. (I mentioned how I was working on developing a "singular focus" in my last "Things I'll Say" article.) Lately, I’ve noticed I have to up the bar yet again.
Here’s the problem: if I abstain from using my phone around others, but I don’t address the mild dopamine craving getting filled by phone when I’m all by myself, then I’m never truly solitary.
The subtlest way to forget who you are is to avoid every opportunity to be alone.
How am I supposed to be present in the world when I’m all by myself, and nothing is being demanded of me? When I’m going for a walk, or when I’m driving, I’m thinking about what other people have posted. I’m thinking about the next thing I’m going to post. I’m not considering the beauty of the world around me or the price of that thing I wanted or the colour of that car–I’m considering what one or several other people would think about it. My phone serves as a physical link to a mental network of conversations and expectations that cannot be turned off–they can only be suspended until I choose to look at my smartphone again.
Our phones affect our sleep, our attention spans, our ability to remember. They harm our relationships even when we aren't using them. They don’t do this because they’re possessed by demonic energies. They do it because everything you experience on your electronic device either happened in the past or is about to happen in the future. While our devices are an important part of our modern life, we’ll have to moderate them if we want to be with one another and at peace when we’re all by ourselves.
Nothing should be able to keep us from the present.
LIVE IN THE NOW
How long is a single moment? Everyone knows what the present tense feels like, but we can’t pin it down with a simple explanation. The planet is hurtling through space at thousands of miles a second, but this rock is so big we feel like we’re standing still. Unfortunately, time works the same way. We think we’re living in the present, until days and years pass by without incident.
How much of your time is spent in the present tense?
How much of your time is spent thinking about the past, or considering the possibilities of the future? You have a list of things you should be doing. You’re carrying the pain of what one person said, and what another did, and it’s interrupting the moment you’re living in. To distract yourself, you consider the next possibility; the next opportunity; the next escape. You pull out your phone, you turn on a podcast. You end up anywhere but here.
You become a memory filing service for your brain, archiving your future to your past.
Here’s the reason it’s so easy to be distracted: living in the now is exhausting. You have to experience loss! You have no idea what’s coming around the corner, because you’re refusing to check the GPS. You’re no longer talking to someone while thinking, “I can’t wait to get out of this conversation.” You’re no longer listening to the condemning internal taskmaster who calls you a failure because you refuse to rehearse your to-do list.
You’re just here.
And you’re honoured to be here. You’re thankful to have a human experience. You can enjoy a visit down memory lane, if you wish, and you’re always anticipating a better future. But you aren’t at home in either one of those tenses. The present is simply too rich to be neglected any longer.
TAKE A FULL STOP.
You cannot afford to have your foot on the accelerator through all of your human experience.
This isn’t just about taking the appropriate rests. I believe in Sabbaths, but this isn’t about a work/play balance. This is about shutting things down and turning things off. It’s about having options you continue to say no to, if only to strengthen your yes to the path you’re on.
The meek inherit the earth because they chose to reserve their strength.
LET THE LIGHT IN
Some things are true, some things are good, and some things are beautiful. I’ve spent most of my attention on the first two kinds of things. I hope you enjoy and appreciate beauty. I hope you let it pass through your skin and leave deep marks on your soul.
These values aren’t mutually exclusive: the truth is often good, and doing good is often beautiful. But beauty has been demoted below the other two values, as an optional luxury. This is a tragic waste.
Please do not neglect the beauty all around you! You can make conclusions about the truth, and you can choose to do good–but beauty is something you can only behold. Be a beholder of beautiful things.
Beautiful things are radiating all around us. Just don't close your eyes.
We live in a beauty-starved world when the word itself seems to be reserved for supermodels and celebrities. When pornography is a hidden epidemic. When the thought of spending any more than a passing moment on the sight of a skyline, or the scent of something baking, or the way a friend’s laughter sounds, seems excessive and wasteful.
Don’t succumb to the baser motivations of those who love darkness over light. Go to art galleries–not to mock the overpriced paintings and the pretentious culture, but to stand there and subject yourself to someone’s self-expression. Pay more for good craftsmanship. Appreciate the outfit your friend is wearing. Acknowledge what makes other people attractive to you! Run your hand along the smooth woodgrain of the bannister and think about the tree that was felled for our personal comfort. Savour your meal like you're on death row.
If you don’t let the light in, then beauty will be used as a weapon to manipulate you. Don’t let the advertisers and the pornographers have their way with this present age. Choose to love and admire beauty for what it is. When something strikes a chord in you, just stay there for a while, and let it resonate within you.