After my recent blog post on Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, a good friend sent me the following quote by Pulitzer Prize winning poet and writer, Mark Van Doren:

“There is one thing we can do, and the happiest are those who do it to the limit of their ability. We can be completely present. We can be all there. We can control the tendency of our minds to wander from the situation we are in toward yesterday, toward tomorrow, toward something we have forgotten, toward some other place we are going next. It is hard to do this, but it is harder to understand afterward wherein it was we fell so short. It was where and when we ceased to give our entire attention to the person, and the opportunity, before us.”

I’m not sure exactly when he penned these words, but it was at least fifty years ago. Interesting how the themes of being present and distraction remain with us. It definitely feels like it’s only gotten worse. Last week, I wrote about starting a meditation practice and so far things are going well for me. I have enjoyed those brief moments of stillness and quiet. I believe the real purpose of that short time of stillness is how it affects our ability to live in the present moment. 

This past weekend I traveled overnight with my 15 year old daughter, Claire, to a mountain bike race. On the drive down, we were each doing our own thing until we came to the dreaded area without cell service. I’d been listening to a podcast about the direction of our country and current cultural norms. Given the opportunity for discussion I asked her about her experience so far in high school, what she thought her future might look like, what were some of her goals and aspirations, the things she worried about. It was one of my sweetest moments as a father. 

Without any distractions, we had great conversation. But that connection also lasted through the trip. I listened to her thoughts and ideas and shared some of the things that I hold dear. We talked about why most boys are lame at her age. We talked about what it means to live a good life. I think she genuinely felt my love. The rest of the weekend we had a great time together with couple times she said unprovoked, “I love you, dad.” There was nowhere else to be, other than right there with her in that moment, and it was the best.

What would being present look like if you gave everything to be there? It would probably mean a decreased urge to reach for your phone whenever you had a moment of downtime. It could mean more engaging and meaningful conversations with your spouse and kids. It might mean embracing periods of boredom when you decided that that moment was enough, and you didn’t need to be elsewhere. It just might mean that the most important things in life take precedent over the things that don’t mean much, if anything.

Overall, I think it would lead to more meaningful moments like the one I had with my sweet girl, Claire.

Often I think we become distracted because we try to escape something painful about our experience in the present. According to Oliver Burkeman (Four Thousand Weeks), “Whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude.” 

No wonder we get lost online, where it feels as though no limits apply (see the infinite scroll).

With the tap of a screen, escape is easy, but truly unfulfilling.

Being present demands all of us, but is so rewarding.

In his book Leading with Character, Jim Loehr makes the following observation:

“Full engagement is the greatest gift we have to give to the world. Bringing our full and best energy in the present moment to our interactions with others honors their presence and is a gesture of deep respect.”

Who in your life could use this gift? I’m guessing you have someone in mind.

  • Stuart
    2 years ago
    This is a great reminder and call to action for me.
    • Nate
      2 years ago
      Thanks Stu! It's amazing how many times I have to remind myself of this principle. But with each reminder I get a little better.
  • Hillory
    2 years ago
    Reading this made my whole day. I loved your thoughts and I loved thinking about the time you and Claire spent together. I recommitted to bring more present with my favorite people today, thanks for sharing❤️