I’d pretty much assumed our hand-holding days were over.
She’s 15, after all.
But during an African Road Learning Trip this summer to Rwanda, my daughter repeatedly reached for my hand.
Yes, hearing personal accounts from survivors and perpetrators of the 1994 Genocide was extremely difficult.
Yes, we were thousands of miles away from anyone and anything familiar.
Yes, the learning experiences were intense, and the days were long.
But as I’ve had time to reflect, I believe my daughter reached for my hand because our hands were free… and our attention was undivided.
The only Internet connection we had came for a short time at night, using a router in the hallway of the cultural center where we stayed.
This meant that for the majority of the day, our minds were free to think, process, reflect, and engage, without interruption and competition. As my daughter and I traveled from destination to destination by bus, we’d take in the beautiful scenery. More often than not, my daughter would quietly reach for my hand.
I relished it.
And I was curious about it.
It didn’t take long to make a connection.
On our first visit to the Togetherness Cooperative, I was struck by the level of attentiveness shown by the children from the rural community of Gasogi.
With their hands resting under their chin, children of all ages listened in rapt attention to the leaders of their community speak. They actively listen for extraordinarily long stretches of time, the older children often holding smaller ones on their laps.
When Natalie and I gathered with the children on the hillside to draw, I was amazed by their extraordinarily long attention spans—sometimes drawing and writing for over an hour, only stopping periodically to look into our eyes. The intensity of their gaze transcended the language barrier. Their faces seemed to say:
You are all here.
We are all here.
And there is no place we’d rather be.
It was no mystery where the children learned this way of BEING. Every adult we met embraced us, held our hands, or kissed our cheeks. We were consistently met with complete presence and invitations for fellowship.
“Welcome. Welcome. We cannot say welcome enough. You came here because you love us,” we were told repeatedly, and every time, my heart skipped a beat.
From the hillside, Natalie and I watched people walk to the water well. After filling their jerry cans, neighbors often lingered to talk. It was plain to see the well met human needs far beyond physical ones.
In this resilient rural Rwandan community, members have little material wealth, but they are relationally and spiritually rich. Bonds are sacred… human touch is vital… face-to-face interaction is part of life.
I had the blessing of speaking at length to the cooperative founder Steven Turikunkiko. Steven began Togetherness Cooperative as a gathering place for genocide orphans facing unspeakable loss, pain, and poverty. Following his heart’s calling has resulted in countless lives being saved and changed with the support from friends of African Road.
One afternoon, Steven asked me an interesting question: “Why do you think many people in countries with so many resources and opportunities are depressed and feel lost?”
I immediately blurted out the word purpose.
“Without a sense of purpose, there is nothing to fuel intrinsic motivation or give meaning to life,” I explained. “Without purpose beyond SELF, the human spirit flounders and feels despair.”
I recorded notes about this conversation with Steven in my journal, though I knew I’d never forget it. Once I got home, I found myself reading and re-reading the journal I carried with me throughout the learning trip. It held 33 profound stories I felt certain I was supposed to share with my readers over time.
How ironic that as I settled in and attempted to write about my experiences, I found myself fighting distraction at every turn.
Just when I needed it, I came across a grounding quote that had been written on a napkin by Garth Callaghan to his teenage daughter:
“There are many wonderful things that will never be done if you do not do them.” -Charles D. Gill
I read the quote over and over until I realized I was crying—not for myself, but for every young person who will never fulfill his or her purpose… never know true inner peace… never have the ability to be fully present because of distraction.
There is a reason Silicone Valley executives do not give their children iPads and set screen-time limits on digital devices. They know the dangers.
But what about the cost?
Is anyone talking about the cost?
Not fulfilling our life’s purpose because we’re wasting our precious time and attention snapchatting, texting, posting, tracking likes and shares, and mindlessly scrolling our lives away…
This could very well be the greatest cost of technology to human life.
I refused to fall victim.
I immediately handwrote my anchor quote on a slip of paper and chose three “wonderful things” I would set out to do that day. My “wonderful things” fell under the categories of making human connection, reaching my dreams, and practicing self-care.
Inside a little clock next to the quote, I colored in block of time I would commit to these things without interruption. I posted in my work space.
Using this awareness and accountability tool each morning for two weeks, I was astounded by what I accomplished. I finished writing the manuscript for a children’s book I’ve been yearning to write for over two years. I came up with a list of over one hundred prospective titles and an intro for my fourth non-fiction book. I’d attended a group exercise class three times that I’d been too scared and too busy to try for months. I delivered ONLY LOVE TODAY and flowers to an elderly woman that my heart's been urging me to visit for over a year. I cuddled more with my husband, played more tennis with my daughter, and sent seven cards to people who’d been on my heart.
It appeared that I found an antidote for distraction:
Having a purpose
Backed by a promise
Is stronger than anything that distracts us from it.
I felt it would be tragic not to share my discovery with the one person I knew needed it more than I did: my teenage daughter. The first semester of high school is no joke—then throw in digital distraction and the social pressures that go along with it, and you have a real challenge to overcome.
One Saturday morning I went to Natalie’s room and told her I needed to show her something.
With a collection of my “wonderful slips” in hand I said, “I’ve been able to take some pretty big steps towards some good things in my life that I have not been able to do for a while. And it was this quote really helped put things into perspective.”
I showed her the quote written all over my collection of wonderful things.
“I realized pretty quickly it was online distraction that was keeping me from doing these wonderful things,” I said.
Wanting her to know this was not just my opinion, I briefly shared a few pieces of research that have been eye-opening to me:
- Merely having your phone on your desk or in your bag next to you is enough to decrease your brainpower. (This happens even when you can’t see your phone.) Those who kept their phones in the other room entirely did better on tasks than those who kept their phones on the desks or in their bags or pockets. (source)
- The unexpected interruptions caused by the phone have a huge impact your productivity. It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after you’ve been interrupted, and you never actually get back to the level of focus you were pre-interruption. (source)
- The mere presence of the phone (like setting it on the table) during interactions with loved ones makes the conversations less fulfilling and people feel less empathy for each other (source)
“I’m very concerned about the latest research on a phone’s impact on people’s relationships and dreams,” I said. “And one of my jobs as your parent is to empower you with awareness and tools so you can become all you are meant to be.”
“Wait. You want me to do that?” Natalie asked, pointing to a slip of paper like it was a rotten banana I just asked her to eat.
“I would like you to try it today. I’d like you to charge your phone in another room and dedicate a few hours to three wonderful things of your choosing – they can relate to school, wellbeing, friendship, cats. It’s so easy to waste a whole Saturday scrolling.”
She released an audible sigh.
“It would be terrible to get to your senior year and realize the time you spent with your phone cost you a chance to do what you most want to do in life,” I added.
What came next was a barrage of emotions, some pushback, but also some progress and understanding.
Two of her comments enabled me to dispel several misconceptions tech companies want us to believe. And they are: “but it’s my downtime from working hard all day,” and “but technology is here to stay and there’s not much we can do.”
The truth is, scrolling is not relaxing or stress relieving, and we DO have control over how we use it. Technology only controls us if we allow it to.
After a meaningful discussion, my daughter agreed to try it. “But I’m not using the clock,” she said as she wrote down three wonderful things that really were quite wonderful.
But the best is what has happened since then.
My daughter now has an anchor quote of her own. She wrote it on a sticky note and posted it on the bathroom mirror, along with some other important reminders for each day. Her studying has been more focused; she’s engaging more with her younger sister and staying longer at the dinner table. I received two invitations last week—one to the coffee shop and one to get ice cream. We had really good conversation because she didn’t pull out her phone. On her wrist, Natalie wears the LET YOUR HEART LEAD paper bead bracelet. She knows her heart will lead her to many wonderful things, but she must create space and quiet so she can hear it.
After plugging her phone in my bathroom for the night, Natalie asked if she could lay with me. Once settled in, she reached for my hand.
I knew exactly when she'd last held my hand. It was July 15 and our plane had just lifted off the ground in Kigali, Rwanda. My emotional reserved girl who rarely cries put her head on my shoulder. Though her words were barely audible, I will never forget them:
“I don’t want to leave,” she said squeezing my hand tightly. “Promise you’ll bring me back, Mom. Please. I must come back.”
What would make a fifteen-year-old girl want to stay in a foreign land void of the comforts of home? A place where she must sleep beneath a mosquito net, take malaria medication, carry toilet paper in her backpack for the pit latrine, eat foreign foods with her fingers… a place cut off from her friends, the internet, and her favorite Starbucks drink?
There is only one explanation: Purpose
My child found her purpose on a red dirt hillside in Gasogi, Rwanda.
It was a place abundant in precious commodities that many in the world are starving for: undivided attention and all-encompassing love.
How easy it is to forget, these commodities are not so rare. In fact, they are ours for the taking…
But we must reach for them.
Start by leaving the phone in another room
Start by looking out the window when you are traveling
Start by finding an anchor quote to ground you
Start by striking up a conversation and listening, really listening
Start by holding a hand
Let’s decide nothing will distract us from doing the one WONDERFUL THING we are here to do today.
Start with a promise:
I am all here;
And there is no place I’d rather be.
I am all here because I love you.
If there is a greater purpose of life than to show up fully for it,
I do not know what it is.
Let’s keep reaching for it.
Dear friends of the Hands Free Revolution, the BE HERE NOW paper bead bracelet that I wrote about in April continues to serves as a grounding touchstone in my life. My 12-year-old daughter Avery wears THE WORLD NEEDS THE GIFT OF YOU bead bracelet, and Natalie recently began wearing LET YOUR HEART LEAD. SHINE YOUR LIGHT is also available. This beautiful collection is handmade in Hawaii by my friend Merilee of Meristic Designs so quantities are limited.
A portion of the proceeds on today’s bead bracelet sales will go toward African Road in partnership with the Togetherness Cooperative, a resilient community taking critical steps to move from poverty and hunger to meeting their own needs and caring for each other. They are part of my family’s heart now, and I am so grateful for your support of them.
A huge thank you to my Arizona friends who let me know they be meeting me with arms wide open next Saturday (9/15) in Scottdale for the GIRLS ON THE RUN Fundraiser. Friends in Ohio and Massachusetts can now register for the events happening in October and November (see below). I hope to see you soon!