Two years ago, as the impending birth of my daughter was quickly approaching, I asked around for advise from the fathers I knew at the office. I was particularly interested in advice regarding the birth event itself, as it was not something I felt fully prepared for. Most advice was practical and calming, like “don’t stress out, humans have done this for millennia” and “let nature do its thing.” The “go with the flow” mentality suited my personality and felt comforting.
The advice that has stuck with me, however, was from my colleague John (fake name). His one piece of advice to me was, “Be present.”
“Oh, don’t worry, my wife will make sure that I’m present,” I joked. John was not amused.
He told me about the births of his two children. For the first, he was present, focused. His full attention was devoted to his wife and the experience, soaking in the waves of elation, pain, relief. With his second it was different, he was distracted. There were phone calls to be made, people to inform, business that still had to be done. He was there, but he was not present.
John admitted that while the birth of his first child was a vivid, cherished memory, the birth of his second was just a blur. He encouraged me to be present both in body and in mind, to block out the noise and be intentional in my focus, to imprint this experience deep within my memory and heart.
I took John’s advice, and I’m glad I did. The experience was moving and sublime, and I felt that I was part of it.
Two Years Later
What John didn’t mention was that being present at the birth isn’t the hard part; the hard part is being present every day after that.
I usually spend Saturday mornings together with my daughter, just the two of us. We eat our breakfast and play together while mom gets a chance to sleep in. She is 21 months old and a true delight, but there are times when play time is less than engaging. After she smashes the seventeenth block tower we’ve built in a row, I start to feel my hand reaching for my phone. It’s nearly subconscious, perhaps reflexive. My fingers know there’s a firehose of mental stimulation (and distraction) waiting just three touches away. Twitter, Facebook, podcasts, email, games…
My daughter snatches the phone out of my hands. She’s just a toddler, but she already knows what that phone is, that magic black block. It’s the block with a front-facing camera that lets her see herself. It’s the block that lets her watch Elmo videos.
It’s the block that takes Daddy’s attention away from her.
The Real Problem
Blaming the technology won’t do. Simply getting rid of my phone won’t get rid of my problem, it won’t grant me the presence I’ve been missing. I believe that technology is strictly amoral, neither inherently good nor bad. Technology simply gives us what we want. I want a lot of good things, and I want a lot of bad things. Removing the technology doesn’t address the problem.
I am the problem.
I want to be distracted. I want to feel entertained. I want to push off my cares and fears and the realities of life. I want to float in a sea of white noise.
But my daughter needs me to be present. My wife needs me to be present. My team at work needs me to be present. I need me to be present. The times that I feel most energized and alive are the times when I have focus and flow, when I’m fully present in the moment.
Being present costs something. Focus of presence is an optimization, and all optimizations are trade-offs. To get something, you give something up. To gain focus on one thing, you consciously push something else away.
Being present requires an acknowledgment of where you are. Not where you’ve been, not where you’re headed, but where you are right now. Being present doesn’t allow you to gloss over the undesirable parts of now, concluding that they will soon be gone once you’ve achieved X or built Y. It demands an honesty with yourself to answer the questions, “Why are you here doing A if you’d rather be doing B elsewhere? Is it your reality or your desire that is out of line? Where is this dissonance stemming from?”
When I sit down and think about the times with my daughter when I’m reaching for the phone, I quickly realize that “boredom” is a naive label that covers up the real emotions of fear, sadness and confusion. Sometimes it’s clear that I don’t fully understand my daughter, that I don’t know how to relate to her. I feel detached from her motivations and value system (big words for a two year old, I suppose). I worry if I’m being a good dad, if I’m doing enough, or if I’m doing the right things.
With all that in my head, it’s no wonder a proverbial iPhone “smoke break” sounds appealing, and perhaps sometimes that’s beneficial. But often I can tell I have a clear choice: step away from the uncomfortable situation, or dig in further. Admit my discomfort and insecurity and dig in further. Make opportunities to better understand my daughter, to humble myself and take the stance of a learner. Be present in the moment and sensitive to what she is trying to show me about herself.
If anyone can teach me about being present, it’s my daughter. Her attention may be fickle, but at any given time she is fully absorbed and present in her current task. Perhaps it’s because she knows that there are wonderful discoveries and experiences around every corner, and I’ve forgotten it. I wish to be present, to find the sublime in the ordinary.
What does “being present” mean to you? How do you stay in the moment, and what pulls you out of it?