On The Other Side of Distraction

While we are busy looking at our screens, we may be missing something.

*Names has been changed to protect privacy of these individuals

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the parent of one of my former students. This father, whose children are now all in college, was very supportive of my Hands Free initiative and journey.

I could hear the passion in his voice when he spoke about the cost of distraction. I had a feeling the excessive use of technology in today’s society had hit a nerve with this man.

It didn’t take long for him to explain.

John* informed me he had recently attended a welcome back party for a family member who had served as a missionary overseas for two years. Anna* had many compelling stories of survival, faith, and hope to share with her family and friends.

Then his voice changed; each word he spoke was coated in anger and disgust as he said, “But no one heard a word Anna said. Everyone was so preoccupied with their damn phones.”

This fifty-five-year-old man found phone usage at the dinner table foreign to his upbringing and simply downright rude.

“What is wrong with people? What is so important that they must look at their phone every two minutes?” he asked, not expecting me to answer so much as join in agreement.

And then came the words that turned a little key inside my brain … a powerful key to being a little more present and a little more in tune with what is going on behind my phone or my computer …

“They missed everything; they missed how her eyes glistened when she told of the orphaned children living on the streets; they missed how she lit up when describing how she sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and held an orphaned child. They missed every single thing this remarkable young woman had to say that night.”

I could not find the words to respond, yet somehow I knew there was more to come.

With quiet, defeated despair, John asked, “Is this what the world has come to? Have the living, breathing people in our midst become invisible when in the presence of a phone?”

John’s unforgettable words have been plastered like anti-distraction wallpaper to the inside of my brain. Since our conversation, a day has not gone by where I do not ask myself,  “What am I missing right now?”

Because I believe in being real in this space that I call Hands Free Mama, I will admit my distraction truths …

My electronic “addiction” is not my phone; however, I am addicted to Microsoft Word. (I live an exciting life, I know.) Pretty much any document I am currently writing about on my computer for my book or my blog becomes my obsession.

My time to write is limited, so I find myself “stealing moments” to write.  This means when my children are contently playing and I am not needed, I will open up the laptop to squeeze in a quick revision or add a paragraph to a developing article.

While there is nothing wrong with engaging in my passion, which thankfully has now become my job, I have set a designated time each day to do it. And so when my writing takes over my mind and focus when I should be fully present with my family, I see this as a problem. I know the difference between being physically present and really showing upand more importantly, my children and my spouse do, too.

The truth hurts, but the truth heals.

Yet, lately, my Hands Free inner voice has made significant progress on releasing the damaging grip distraction has on me.

It happens when I hear my husband and children laughing hysterically from the next room.

It happens when I hear my five-year-old “reading” a book aloud with dramatic inflection from the kitchen.

It happens when I hear my eight-year-old bouncing tennis balls against the garage door.

It happens when I hear my daughters singing, “Pumped Up Kicks” through the open garage door as they ride their scooters in the driveway.

These happenings cause my head to lift up from my distraction and ask, “What am I missing right now?”

The answer?

I am missing life.

I am missing the parts of life that really matter.

This is exactly what happened when my parents visited our home recently. We had just purchased an old-fashioned homemade ice cream maker, just like the one my dad used on hot summer days in Iowa when I was a girl.

On this particular day, my husband made his grandmother’s homemade ice cream recipe and my dad kindly offered to man the ice cream maker, just like he did 40 years ago.

I had just returned from several days of travel, so I was hastily trying to catch up on my writing; I was locked away in my bedroom pecking away on the keyboard.

While the ice cream maker rhythmically churned, I could hear my dad’s deep, warm voice intertwined with my daughter’s sweet, high-pitched voice. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but I could tell it was happy talk.

This time, I didn’t even need to ask myself, “What are you missing?”

I knew. I knew.

I slammed the computer shut and ran; I literally ran through the house to the back porch as if the grill was shooting fiery flames and I held the fire extinguisher.

All I could think was that this could be the last time I ever see my seventy-three-year-old dad make homemade ice cream. The thought virtually made me want to hug him and never let him go.

I burst through the screen door to see my dad instructing my daughter gently and patiently, just like he did when I was a little girl.

My daughter soon accomplished her part of the churning process and was off to play in the backyard with her little sister. That left my parents and me on the back deck enjoying the last warm evening of fall. We engaged in twenty minutes of heavenly uninterrupted conversation, a rare occurrence with two young children in the house.

I was fully aware that if I had stayed planted behind the screen of my computer, I would have missed this once in a lifetime moment. Thank God, I didn’t.

I wish I could tell you that one year of living Hands Free means technology and other forms of distraction no longer tempt me.

But I can’t.

So instead, I choose to share my struggles. And last week one of my dear readers reminded me why.

She informed me that my post, “The Art of Showing Up,” prompted her make a vow that she would no longer use her phone during her daughter’s volleyball games.

So last week, with her phone safely zipped inside her purse, she saw every play and every expression on her child’s face.  She was surprised and thrilled about the number of times her daughter looked up in the stands and smiled at her throughout the game.

This mother was so excited and overjoyed by the result of putting away the phone and truly “showing up” for her daughter that she let everyone around her know she would no longer be using her phone during her daughter’s game.

Not only did she want her friends to hold her accountable, she thought by spreading the message to others, someone else might reap the benefits, too.

Her exact words to me were: “I didn’t know what I was missing; now I do.”

I instantly thought of my friend John and the missionary who was completely ignored by her dinner guests staring at the screens of their phones.

I wonder what would have happened if just one person at that dinner party had announced, “I’m putting away my phone for the evening because I don’t want to miss what Anna has to say.”

I truly believe things would have been different that night.

Sometimes simply sharing your own newfound awareness becomes a life-changing gift that has an unending impact.

And if you simply look around in any public setting, you will notice that this type of “distraction awareness” (electronic awareness) seems to be needed.

Because in today’s society it has become perfectly acceptable to look at a screen while you eat dinner at a restaurant, while you go through the check-out line at the store, while your child engages in sports or plays at the park, even while someone you love stands right in front of you trying to be seen and heard.

And as this constant phone usage behavior has become so “normal” and so commonplace in our society, one major detail has been lost along the way.

Life continues to go on behind that screen.

Conversations, expressions, experiences, and beautiful emotions continue to happen on the other side of that device.

And while you are looking at the screen, you are missing it.

So why not put away the phone when you are with your friends or family? Why not close that computer for a bit?

Look up. Look up.

There’s life on the other side of distraction.

Look up before the person on the other side decides you have missed entirely too much to ever catch up.

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Do you have difficulty tearing yourself away from an electronic device when you should be interacting with the people around you?

In a New York Times article entitled, “You Love Your iPhone Literally,” author Martin Lindstrom states, “ Some psychologists suggest that using our iPhones and BlackBerrys may tap into the same associative learning pathways in the brain that make other compulsive behaviors — like gambling — so addictive.” You can read the thought-provoking article here.

Instead of allowing technology to control you, take control of technology. Set aside a period of time today where your electronic device is turned off or put out of sight. Whatever happens on your phone or computer in that period of time can wait. Interaction with the people you love can’t wait and shouldn’t have to wait for at least one designated period of time each day.

And when you turn off your phone, let your significant other, friend, co-worker, or child know what you are doing. Give the gift of “distraction awareness.” You just might encourage someone else to look up and see the beautiful happenings going on behind the screen.

*For further help on curbing your technology usage, here are two informative articles:

“Coping With Cell Phone Addiction”

“Facebook Syndrome: 8 Ways to Beat Your Facebook Addiction”