THE BLOG
09/26/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

The Greatest Picture I Never Took

Josh Misner, Ph.D.

This year was my youngest son's first year in his new school.

On the eve before his first day of school, I spent the better part of an hour cuddled up next to him before bed, listening to him as he discussed his fears and trepidations with me, including everything from getting lost, to having a mean teacher, to dealing with playground bullies and worrying about whether the kids at the new school would accept him or not.

The following morning, after what I can only assume was a restless night since he woke up about two hours early, he had a bounce to his step, complete with a positive attitude and a sense of courage to head to his new school. When we got to school that morning, I parked about a block away so that the three of us -- he, my youngest daughter, and I -- could walk together and talk about any last-minute hesitations. We held hands and took our steps slowly, enjoying the crisp, late summer morning, and those last few moments of freedom before the bell tolled the official start of the school year.

We paused, just before entering the building so that I could take our traditional first-day-of-school picture of him and his sister. You know the shot. It's the one that all our parent friends inevitably plaster all over our timelines during the first week of September. After the pic, we embraced tightly for one more hug, and I leaned down to give him a kiss, savoring the moment, knowing full well that, before long, those kisses and hugs in front of the school will likely disappear. As I watched my babies walk into the building, I sighed, feeling the release of yet another summer full of memories slip away.

My "Hallmark moment" was trumped by what I did next.

Reaching into my pocket, I withdrew my phone, and as I walked the full block back to my truck, my focus turned to choosing the perfect settings on Instagram for the picture, so I could show off my little gems to all my friends and watch as the likes rolled in, validating my worth as a parent. After I posted the picture, a strange sense of remorse crept in, and it dawned on me that, as of late (as of the last few years, really), I've been taking pictures of every single moment, from the trivial to the sublime, as well as everything in between.

Granted, I'm certain that I'm not alone in this endeavor, seeing as how one of my favorite pastimes involves getting the family together, pulling up the external hard drive, broadcasting it to the Apple TV and going through each folder, month by month, reminiscing and recounting stories with one another about our favorite memories. In this endeavor, I feel as though I'm collecting data for future use whenever I pull out my phone or camera to capture a moment.

There was something different about this time.

I began to wonder if I've started "chasing memories" -- deliberately manipulating our actions and behaviors so as to capture the perfect shot, the one that everyone in my friends list will be ooh-ing and ah-ing over for days to come, as I create the perfect profile or cover photo.

It seems like the more pervasive social media becomes to my daily routine, the more frequently I seek out "photo ops" with my family and suddenly, our special moments become less about savoring the experience of being together. They become more about capturing the perfect light, the perfect pose, the perfect smile, etc. I have begun to look at life as not a series of moments to be treasured, but as a series of images to be collected, edited and republished for everyone to share.

I decided to try a little experiment on myself later that afternoon.

As I arrived to my kids' school, I took my place outside, near the flagpole. The sun was perched directly above the flag as I glanced up at it, waving gently in the breeze, and I noticed that my immediate thought was, that would make an awesome picture for my Facebook photo-of-the-day group. Having noticed this thought, I just as quickly let it fade, leaving my phone parked within the folds of my pocket, and this act of letting go produced an involuntary, effortless smile.

As the other parents showed up, I began looking around, taking inventory of what I noticed. At least 8 out of every 10 parents had their faces buried in the words scrolling by with each swipe of their finger, while the remaining two were grandparents, all of whom seemed content to simply wait patiently, sans electronic devices. Strangely enough, each of them had the same contagious and effortless smile that I couldn't have shaken off if I tried.

The bell rang and the children filed out, their eyes darting back and forth, scanning the crowd for their parents' faces. As their eyes locked, they squealed with delight as their little legs sprinted across the concrete. Interestingly enough, as the 8 out of 10 parents who had phones in their hands saw their children, they each instinctively held up their phones to capture the shot of their little ones running, arms outstretched. At least a few of them couldn't get the moment captured in time, so they actually asked their children to back up and do it again!

Then, I saw my little boy walking out.

Our eyes locked, and my smile became his. "Daddy!" he shouted gleefully as he ran, his arms also stretched out before him. Without a phone or camera in my hand, I stretched out mine as well, and when our arms met, I swept him up into my arms, where I was met with arguably one of the greatest hugs I've ever felt.

"Daddy, I missed you today," he whispered softly as his grip on my shoulders tightened and a euphoric chill crawled its way up my spine.

"I missed you too, buddy," I replied, "and I can't wait to hear you tell me about your first day on the way home."

Full disclosure: I'm not a technophobe, and you'll never catch me advocating for the destruction of smartphones, nor will you ever see me deactivate my Facebook or Instagram accounts in favor of the "old school" way of doing things. I simply love the power of social media too much to do that, because it connects us in a way never before possible.

What I learned from this experiment was to pursue balance with respect to "chasing memories" versus enjoying moments as they unfold in the present.

There are certainly times when a photo or video is necessary, such the big moments: first steps, first day of school, first Christmas/birthday/date, etc. The big ones only come once in a lifetime, so if possible, snap away! Other times, however, we need to start questioning ourselves. More often than not, before we pull out the phone or camera, we ask ourselves the question, "Is this moment priceless enough to me that I should permanently record it?"

Instead, the question may be better posed as, "Is this moment priceless enough to my child for me to play an active part in it?"

The answer to this question may never be 100% clear, but I feel confident in assuring this: I doubt anyone on their death bed has ever regretted not taking enough pictures, but I'm reasonably certain that there are plenty who have regretted not taking the time to be present with their loved ones. While a picture may speak a thousand words, those words quickly become unnecessary as we immerse ourselves in the moment.

Returning to the story of the first day of school, somehow, our greeting that day seemed richer and more colorful, and mysteriously, not only was it substantially more satisfying to me as a parent, but the memory of that moment also seems clearer in my mind.

Would a picture or video of the moment have been the better option, since it would have afforded me the ability to view it repeatedly?

Maybe or maybe not, but the moment I'm now carrying around in my mind is quite possibly the greatest picture I never took.

Read more Josh Misner, Ph.D. on the Facebook page, Mindful Dad: www.facebook.com/drjmindfuldad