A plea to put down the camera phone

When you become a grandparent, I’ve noticed that certain physiological and metabolic changes take place. You no longer need food for sustenance. Survival depends entirely on a steady supply of pictures of your grandkids. Now, I'm not a grandparent, but I do have two parents and two kids, which makes me something akin to a grocery store for the aging. My parents stop by weekly for the essentials, and I keep the shelves stocked.

The other night, my 4-year-old daughter snuck up behind my 1-year-old daughter in her high chair, jumped in front and yelled "surprise!" The two girls giggled and squealed in joy with each other as my wife and I ran out of the room to fumble around the house searching for our phones. “OK wait, wait, now do that again.” They did. Sort of. And, restocking aisle nine, we immediately supplied the picture of our smiling girls to the grandparents via text message.

The reality is keeping the shelves stocked is easy. We capture nearly every joyful moment of our daughters’ lives on our phones. But do my wife and I actually experience the moments? Or do we miss an opportunity to connect with each other and our daughters on an emotional level? The classic rejoinder is: “I'll forget the moment if I don’t have a picture of it.” But that assumes you can both experience the moment and photograph it. I’m suggesting that you're not truly experiencing a joyful moment if your reflex is “where's my phone?”

And what’s more important: to experience the moment or take a picture of it?

Consider that same “surprise!” moment in a world without camera phones. Instead of a fleeting recognition of a heart-warming moment followed by the fear of not capturing it in pixel form, that emotion may have lasted longer and had more meaning. Perhaps I would have looked at my wife, and she at me, experiencing the same joy as our daughters, but from a different perspective. And maybe our little girls would have paused to look at us, recognizing that we were sharing the same emotions, validating them.

Now fast forward a year or two or more. My wife and I are flipping through old pictures. In world number one — the real world, that is — we're in a deep dive scrolling through thousands of pictures and we reach that one of the high chair moment. "Oh, that’s a cute one," my wife says, flipping to the next before finishing the thought. In world number two — the empty grocery store world — we're scanning a few pictures from vacations or the kids' birthdays. The high chair moment has vanished, no physical evidence that it even occurred, and the memory is long gone.

In both worlds, we have no memory of an emotional connection on that day — but for considerably different reasons. In world number one, we never had it. At best, we'll remember scurrying to find a phone and begging our daughter to jump again. And even that memory will soon fade. In world number two, we don't remember the day at all or the emotional connection we shared as a family. But the connection happened. And it's a thread in the fabric of meaningful experiences that define our family.

Our family isn’t a collection of photographs; it's that fabric sewn together by the threads of shared experiences and emotions — many of which we'll remember but most of which we'll forget. I don’t have a picture of my daughter's last tantrum. We both experienced it and shared the negative emotions during it. We won't remember it in a year. But it’s another thread. And isn’t it my responsibility to ensure each negative thread is followed by dozens of positive ones?

If yes, then that reflex to grab my phone in joyful moments makes my job more difficult. To be sure, the high chair moment is a positive thread that will help bind the relationship between my daughters. But, courtesy of our camera reflex, my wife and I missed an opportunity to connect that thread to ours.

In short, enjoy the moment. Send your parents to Safeway.

Brandon Levitt is an attorney; his email is BRLevitt@gmail.com.

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