presence vs fumbling for a phone

i just completed a month of senior events and graduations. final recitals. senior plays. farewell assemblies. all topped off by the graduation ceremonies themselves. i went to several this year, including that of my daughter, who chose a very unique senior year at a waldorf high school. her graduation ceremony was a thing of true beauty. each student was honored by a faculty member who spoke of them with care and grace. corsages were presented to each parent and an incredibly appointed buffet and live band reception followed. the gym was transformed to a sacred space of sorts and a reverence hung heavy about the room. unlike every other graduation i attended, there was an absolute absence of people taking photos with their phones. this was true at the senior project presentations and farewell assembly as well. as i looked around at each of these events, i blushed at finding myself the only person recording anything on a digital device.

waldorf education is built on tending to the whole person. waldorf educators commit to welcoming their students with respect and reverence and endeavor to speak to the mind, body, and spirit of each of them. in waldorf schools computers are not introduced in the classroom until high school (sometimes middle school) and families are encouraged to limit the consumption of media in all its forms. whether one loves or questions these ideals and distinctives, i am here to tell you that waldorf adults experience their children’s/student’s important moments in a way that is increasingly counter cultural. they are not fumbling for their phones. they are not recording videos. they are simply experiencing. fully. hands free (for clapping, hugging, wiping away the tears that result when one is fully present). eyes looking into eyes (instead of screens).

when i am in a crowd with these folks, it’s noticeable how truly present everyone is. it looks so different from the images i’m used to seeing. news stories clad with photos, the foregrounds of which are filled with small rectangular cell phone screens shown recording the moment in real time. flashes from the next table over as diners capture images of their meals. concert goers working harder to video the act than to actually see the stage. it feels different too. there is a quietness. a reverence. a sense that what is happening is important. so important that you don’t want to miss it. so important that experiencing it might be more meaningful than capturing it digitally.

in beauty: the invisible embrace john o’ donohue wisely states:

“traditionally, a journey was a rhythm of three forces: time, self and space. now the digital virus has truncated time and space. marooned on each instant, we have forfeited the practice of patience, the attention to emergence and delight in the eros of discovery. the self has become anxious for what the next instant might bring. this greed for destination obliterates the journey. the digital desire for the single instant schools the mind in false priority. each instant proclaims its own authority and the present image demands the complete attention of the eye. there is no sense of natural sequence where an image is allowed to emerge from its background and context when the time is right, the eye is worthy and the heart is appropriate. the mechanics of electronic imaging reverses the incarnation of real encounter. but a great journey needs plenty of time. it should not be rushed; if it is, your life becomes a kind of abstract package tour devoid of beauty and meaning. there is such a constant whirr of movement that you never know where you are. you have no time to give yourself to the present experience. when you accumulate experiences at such a tempo, everything becomes thin. consequently, you become ever more absent from your life and this fosters emptiness that haunts the heart.”

anymore it feels like our life journeys have little intentional rhythm. we don’t live rests and patterned notes. there is little difference between foreground and background, crescendos and decrescendos. instead it often feels as though we are all trying to capture as many conversations, pictures, videos, and people as possible and hold them in our pockets. rather than leaning into the moments we find ourselves in, we often escape them to share them with others who are present only digitally. we leave present circumstances to check in with our games, the news, the twitterverse, or our social networks. without fully playing the present measure, we skip forward to the next line of music.

i believe that much of this has to do with our ever dwindling ability to be still and our shrinking capacity to be authentically, vulnerably present as full selves in an uncertain world. we don’t like to be caught off guard. we don’t know how to handle the unknown. or make eye contact. or navigate an unforeseen conversational lull. boredom is our enemy and we have made the pointing out of the “awkward” a national obsession. 

i went to what was supposed to be an outdoor concert today. the band included five musicians who had traveled 7 hours to play what would normally be a packed venue. due to rain, the event had been moved indoors. when i found the new location, five minutes into the first set, i felt instantly awkward when i entered, from a door alongside the stage, a mostly empty room. only one table was occupied and it held two people. as i settled into my seat, it would have been much more comfortable to take out my phone and surf the web, check my email, or text someone than it was to sit there, face forward, eyes open, making direct contact with everyone on that stage.

i frequently go to concerts alone specifically to be anonymous. to lean into opportunities to be lost in crowds, part of experiences that are bigger than me and that are feasts for all my senses. this was exactly the opposite. i could not blend in or be lost. my presence, as well as that of each of the 7 others in the room, was remarkably obvious. it struck me, however, that if i felt uncomfortable, very likely everyone else in that room felt the same. and so, i sat and i engaged fully. i forced myself to not look away when a band member made eye contact. i didn’t lock my face to a screen (which would have been oh-so-convenient) to avoid the chit chat that i feel so terribly inept at between songs. i didn’t say, like i wanted to, that they could really just take a long break and grab a few more beers when the others left the room because i really wasn’t enough of an audience to play for. and, i think, i grew a little. or at least i didn’t reinforce the messages i tell myself that i’m a terrible chit chatter and not a worthy audience. i gave them the gift of enjoying their offering and, since i didn’t allow myself to escape to other places via my phone, i enjoyed the offering much more fully. i noticed the skill of the slide guitar player, the nuances of the lyrics, how each song made me feel, and the way the light moved across the room. 

bringing ourselves fully to a moment requires effort and intention, especially when so many enticing distractions are available to us every moment of every day. we must, then, decide ahead of time how we want to engage in each time and space that we find ourselves in. we must plan to navigate awkward moments, pregnant pauses, uncomfortable glances (or stares). we must train our selves to be sturdy enough to stay present even when (or maybe especially when) all we want to do is capture the moment so we can “share” it with others or escape it altogether by engaging our digital universes. perhaps our desire to do so detracts from our ability to experience it ourselves. fully. with all our senses. in embodied ways. how the moment smells and feels and tastes and sounds and looks.

perhaps this kind of attending requires bringing the self to moments in new and different ways. for me this means that i experience a play differently if i dress up to attend it or a concert more fully if i force myself to keep my phone in my back pack because i’ve decided ahead of time that i am where i am to be at the concert not to tell others i am there. i attend to conversations differently when i enter them intentionally, without ringers or vibrations alerting me. i arrive to the present with a new reverence if i’ve taken time to determine these things ahead of time. if i agree with myself to be with myself and others fully in this place called my life.

john o’donohue says, “our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyber-space...we have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us.” 

and so, i am endeavoring to live life in greater deference to the interior world.  mine and yours. i am trying to linger at the threshold of the unknown, trusting that doing so will grow me. i may not have as many photos to share or videos to show but my internal experience and the intensity of self i will have available for attending to you will be enhanced. for this, i am eternally grateful...even if i am awkward.


  1. "...our neon times..." yes. and it's giving me a headache.

  2. That's a wonderful quote from John O'Donohue. Thanks for your observations. I will try to keep them in mind at this coming weekend's family reunion :-).

  3. Doreen, thank you for starting your ruminations about the intrusion of technology on lived experiences with a vivid depiction of our children's graduation at the Waldorf School. Having been connected with the school for 12 years, and having attended many, many celebrations and ceremonies, I have continued to cherish the reverence that pervades those occasions. However, your fresh perspective gave me a rejuvenated appreciation for this "beloved community" that has helped "birth" our children into the adult world. My hope is that they will have the capacity to immerse themselves in their lives without the constant need to jut away from discomfort or intensity and to relish what they are experiencing in the moment. Maybe, at least, once in awhile. Best wishes. Amy