I checked a text message, and when I looked up, my daughter was gone.
We were at an indoor playground in a mall near our house, and she was playing happily. Mommy was off shopping for new clothes for her little girl, so it was daddy-duty time. My iPhone buzzed in my pocket. I thought it might have been the wifey checking in to make sure we were still at the playground. I reached in my pocket and pulled the phone out. Turns out it was my buddy texting about fantasy football. I was crushing him. He was mad. I smirked.
When I looked up, my daughter was not in the playground area. My stomach dropped (people talk about a “sinking feeling”, but it felt more like an implosion in my guts with sour smoke filling me up to my nostrils). I stood up and started running towards the only entrance/exit to the play area.
And there she was, standing just behind the little padded wall separating the area from the rest of the food court, trying to steal a sippy-cup out of someone’s stroller.
I picked her up and just stared at her.
Obviously, this ended up being no big deal. Most parents have been through something similar, many through something worse, a few through the unimaginable. This is not some play for pity or even empathy.
It just woke me up to what was at stake in the real world.
What is scary about the world of technology is that almost none of it is real. It’s not tangible. It barely exists at all.
Let’s take money, for example. To be honest, neither my wife nor I ever see much of it. It gets automatically deposited in our account, the numbers on the website go up, we swipe our card, the numbers go down, and meanwhile I wonder what would happen if the computers and internet stopped working. I mean, I wouldn’t actually have anything. I don’t even have cash, which really is just like a note saying that I went to work recently. My daughter can’t eat it, nor can she eat the phone or the t.v. or the computer screen (though she sometimes tries).
While we put more and more of our daily lives into pixels and binary, the tangible stuff of this world remains what’s important. The flesh and blood. The earth and water. The sunlight and crops. The food and the bellies it is meant to fill. These are the indispensibles.
But it is so easy to forget that.
I stop watching out for my kid’s safety to see what the flashing lights on a screen will say. Subconsciously, I believe I have to check the text; what if it’s my wife wondering if we’re still in the same spot?
Well, what if it is?
What would she do if I missed it or just didn’t respond? Well, she’d walk to where she thinks we are, and she’d find us there.
The danger of something as powerful and freaking expensive as an iPhone is that we can forget that it is not necessary. I don’t need it. My wife doesn’t need me to have it. We could just trust in the communication we had already had –
“Hey, I’ll meet you at this place at this time.”
Then I just have to be there. Done.
I could exist without an iPhone. I could exist without a phone at all. I actually have, at various times when I broke my cheapies from the ATT store. And those times were pretty freeing.
It can be nice to have the phone, or it can ruin my life. It can suck me one step further into the unreal, into the tool and out of the workshop, away from the flesh and into the flash, or it can keep me a little more connected and organized in my daily life.
The things that make me feel alive are all real. Feeling the rocks of the playground in my shoes while I watch my girl play. Gripping the leather of a football in my palm as I throw it to my laughing wife. Smelling the must of a book as the pages slide through my fingers. Getting grass stains on my knees and mud on my wedding ring and pricks from rosebushes on my arms while I do yard-work. These are what keep my blood pumping and brain working; it’s what keeps my life from going numb.
I’m a better parent when I’m in the real world. I don’t think I was actually a bad dad in that moment for checking a text, but it did remind me that if something’s on a screen, it is almost certainly less important than what’s off it. It is almost never life and death.
Life off the screen, however, always is. I would do well not to forget it again.