Last year, my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
I can’t explain to you how difficult this was for my family. Death's knock had never sounded so hard and loud. Living with the knowledge that my dad had cancer was living with death's shadow constantly by my side, darkening my every emotion and thought. Would the cancer take my dad's life? How much longer would I be able to hear his voice or look at the stars with him? How much more time was there to enjoy great meals together, talk about our newest books together, and laugh together?
And yet, my own suffering paled in comparison to the physical, emotional, and spiritual agony that my 50-something dad had to endure. He experienced excruciating pain as the cancerous tumor grew to the size of a small football, smashing the main nerve running down his left arm, and spewing toxins into his body, wreaking havoc.
Even the radiation used to kill the tumor reacted with the otherwise healthy parts of my dad's body. Four terrible months after his initial diagnosis, my family converged in Nashville where we sat in the hospital waiting room as the doctor attempted to remove the tumor from my dad's arm.
As we sat in that room, the minutes feeling like hours, a belief that had slowly been growing within me finally took hold: Life is short. The raging fire that roared to life when my dad faced death too soon burned away my old child-like understanding of the world. We don't all live long, healthy lives. And even if we do, it doesn't matter. Life is short. This changes everything.
From the moment that this belief came alive within me, I began filtering every decision through it. If life is short, I didn’t want to work anymore than I needed to; and so, I stopped working as much and spent more time with my family. If life is short, I didn’t want to miss out on enjoyable moments because I was busy deriding myself for some personality shortfall; and so, I became more accepting of myself.
Of course, this new "life is short" filter had a dark side.
I found myself fearing that my loved ones would die soon. It became clear that I wanted to, no, I needed to soak in and fully enjoy every single moment with those around me while I still had them.
But as hard as I tried to cherish every moment with my loved ones, I simply wasn’t able to do it. I experienced wonderful moments, like taking my three year old son to go look up close at a fire truck (his favorite), and in the moment, it felt wonderful and like I was fully taking advantage of this short life.
But then, the moment would pass and the emotions and memory of it would soon fade away only to be replaced by a lesser quality copy of the original experience; a copy that was never good enough by my own standards.
And as these special moments came and went, leaving me with sub-par replicas in my memory, I began feeling as though life's meaningful moments were slipping right by me and that soon, I would blink and one of my loved-one's short lives, or even my own, would come to an end. And this was unacceptable.
I was trying to dam up the rushing waters of meaningful experiences, so I could cherish them forever, but I only had my bare hands to use. That is, until I discovered a different way to hold onto and relive all those wonderful moments in life.
The smartphone gave parents an advantage that no parent has ever had in history. We all have a little recorder in our pockets that, in a matter of about 4 seconds, we can use to capture the sights and sounds of any moment we want in high definition quality. If my own memory wasn’t good enough at capturing special moments, then the smartphone was my answer.
I started to record not only the special events and moments of my children's lives, like Halloween, birthdays, and "first-time" moments, but the mundane parts as well, like a video of them playing with their toys, so that I could watch and relive them over and over again. When I watch these videos, I feel like life isn’t slipping through my fingers, like I am able to reach down and grab moments in time that are otherwise doomed to a blurred, faded, and possibly forgotten existence.
Because I have these videos, I'll always be able to watch and remember what each of my kids was like at every stage in their lives. Because I have these videos, I'll always be able to watch and remember so many of the silly and wonderful things they did. I am deeply grateful for this technology.
And yet, I sometimes wonder. I wonder if there is a cost associated with taking all these pictures and videos of our children. I’m hit the hardest by this thought every time I go to a children's event, like my son's recent preschool concert, where, as I looked across the room full of parents, I'm overwhelmed by a sea of phones and tablets held up to record the event. I don't know exactly why, but this sight bothers me every time. It feels like the pendulum has swung so far away that we prioritize our need to record every moment of our children's live over actually witnessing the events through the lens of our own eyes, present and watching.
What, for example, does the five year old boy at his preschool concert see when he's on stage, looking out at the audience hoping to see his proud, beaming parents? Will he see two parents whose primary focus is on recording the event by some digital means? Will he still find reassurance in seeing them there, behind the smart phone?
My concern doesn't end there. If we're only recording our children’s best, funniest, and cutest moments, are we sending a message that their so-so, not-that-funny, and un-cute moments aren't good enough to receive our praise and attention? And are we teaching them to opt for their performer-selves rather their true selves, even if their true-selves aren’t camera worthy? And when they see us share only the best videos and pictures of them with our friends, are we unwittingly teaching them the rule that governs social media, that the "projected me" is the real me?
What can we do?
Before teetering over the edge into full blown alarmism, I want to make clear that my goal isn't to add more worries to the heavy burden that parents already have to shoulder. No, I simply think that the pendulum of our desire to capture life's special moments may have swung too far towards being us-focused and needs to swing back ever so gently towards being more child-focused.
What I mean is this: while it feels so wonderful to capture all those incredible moments of our children's lives, perhaps we should remember to communicate to our children, through words and action, that they are always more important than our recordings of them.
In talking to some friends about this, I heard a great suggestion for doing this for all those special events, like concerts and baseball games: record enough of the event that you'll be able to look back and remember the experience but not so much that you end up getting fully sucked into the recording, and entirely miss being present for the actual experience.
And for all those everyday moments at home, something my wife and I like to do is to "catalog" things our kids do that we love. For example, my daughter went through a phase of saying, "Hi Dada." in an adorable way, and we just made sure to capture her doing it once, so we'd remember it going forward.
Let's go back, for a moment, to that hospital room where the full weight of how short life truly is hit me between the eyes. We waited for what felt like days for news about my dad's surgery. After ten hours – two hours longer than the surgery was originally scheduled to last – we received a call from the surgeon. The surgery was a success, they'd removed the tumor, and my dad was doing well.
My dad is here with us now, almost a year after his surgery, and I thank God every day for him. As anyone with cancer survivor and family member knows, there's always a lingering fear that the cancer will return. But for now, we're blessed to be able to continue talking, laughing, and connecting with my dad.
Yes, life is short.
But don't let the fear of losing loved ones, of losing these precious moments, of time slipping away, drive you to a life focused on recording events, over being present for life. Find the balance between living in the moment and capturing just enough of the moment to keep the memory sharp.
And, most importantly, take advantage of the time you have with those around you. Tell your loved ones, today, now, how very much they mean to you.