Some people assert that the only experiences worth collecting are those that are extreme. Summiting a mountain. Sky diving. Placing a prayer flag in Tibet. Even their every day experiences tend toward the extraordinary. Bikram Yoga in 100 degree studios, Roller Derby matches, and colon cleanses fit in the “fun” category for these folks. If pain or risk aren’t involved, the experience doesn’t count.
I, on the other hand, consider myself a collector of what might be thought of as somewhat mundane experiences. I often invite friends to join me (or not) in my every day adventures and it becomes clear (quickly) how much about the experience, rather than the content, that I am. For example, I rarely know much (and hardly ever care) about the bands whose free concerts I attend. The experience of the concert is the gift much more than the music. I go to lectures by people I’ve never heard of and visit sporting events I know nothing about just to experience the crowd.
I think I learned this from my parents. My dad rode bikes with my brother and I on Saturday mornings and we collected cans to return for cash which we saved for Thrifty ice cream cones by the downtown fountain. We had family nights and took turns planning them. I vividly remember the month that I chose to give everyone makeovers and my dad sat patiently while I applied makeup to his face. We often served at the local Gospel Mission, my dad speaking, my mom loving everyone there, and my brother and I singing (with me playing my oh-so-cool tambourine...seriously!) on Friday nights. On many occasions family friends would return from their honeymoons to us sneaking into their homes and bedrooms (as an adult I can’t really believe my parents took this risk but I love that they did) to shanghai them for breakfast celebrations we would host. One summer my parents took us to a film series, held over several consecutive weeks, that consisted of lectures by a noted philosopher and theologian. I remember being part bored and part thrilled, realizing that we were the only kids in the place every week.
I read research recently that posited that people are engaging in life differently now that they can Tweet and blog about their experiences. It seems that, for some among us, experiences themselves are no longer sufficient for recollection. It is, rather, the broadcasting of the occurrences that gives them significance. Think about the last week’s worth of status updates you’ve typed or the last twenty five tweets you’ve sent. While there is nothing inherently wrong or “bad” about including others in our day to day experiences, it is important to own our motivations for doing so. What can, at times, be a fun way of keeping our communities up to date or sharing an amazing moment can, at others, be a way of looking cool or gaining status (no shock that this is the word chosen by Facebook).
In considering my own life, what I notice is this: the extremity or price tag isn’t what makes an experience meaningful. Neither is the reaction of those I tell about it. It is, rather, the level of engagement, the novelty, and the investment of myself in the process that gives an experience its meaning and ascribes its potency. Mundane everyday-ness can become quite stretching when embarked upon with intention and effort. Plane tickets, mood altering drugs, or extreme risk are not necessary components for a stretching of the self. Broadcasting my experiential ventures doesn’t make them more impactful, it just makes them more widely known of. Real life has an excitement and expansiveness of its own, even in the routine, and solitude, and regularity of it all. This, however, is rarely tweeted about or included in our status updates.
When was the last time you really stopped and noticed a cloud? How did it move? How long did you watch it? When was the last time you savored something you ate? Or heard? Or felt? Savored. Really, truly experienced it in all its “it-ness?” When was the last time you leaned into an experience to enjoy it solely for and with yourself? Have you, recently, willed yourself to pay full attention to how it is to be exactly yourself in exactly one moment? When you are able to do this, does your mind float to telling others about it via social media? If you stopped yourself from doing so, and worked instead to fully validate your own experience, what might happen? How might it change the way you experience that very moment?
Last weekend I went to a wedding alone. After a lovely ceremony and the cutting of the cake, the dancing began. Pulled onto the floor by the bride and encountering friends among the other dancers, I was completely content dancing by myself. The bride, however, played amazing hostess and brought over a childhood friend of the groom to dance a partner dance with me. I was nearly paralyzed. For all my love of dancing, I am completely incompetent at following a lead. Completely. Since walking off the floor and refusing this kind soul’s partnership was not an option I gave myself, I was given a new experience.
Even though I rarely post status’ to my personal Facebook page, I found myself thinking in status update sound bytes in this incredibly uncomfortable moment. “doreen dodgen-magee is failing on the dance floor,” “currently bruising the toes and ego of the kind groomsman who is only trying to help,” “so I thought I could dance...” By thinking about making fun of myself I was able to escape the embarrassment of the moment.
In this case the status update/Tweet type thinking was helpful and that is not uncommon. Status updates are also incredibly helpful ways of sharing an amazing opportunity or experience with others who would want to join in. In other situations, however, I find them incredibly un-helpful. When I’m undertaking a task I secretly wish I got more praise for it would be convenient to seek it in passive ways on Facebook. When hoping others might think I’m cool because of my knowledge of certain events or locations I could broadcast my whereabouts by checking in. When my affiliation with someone might win me prestige I might want to post photos or such to show it off. While all of these might be harmless and fun, none of them really help me develop a sturdy self. Instead, they take me away from my own thoughts and feelings in the present moment and place my attention in your thoughts and feelings, wondering how YOU will respond to MY moment.
Next time any of us goes to Tweet, to “check in,” or to (unconsciously) type status updates, may we pause first to cherish our own moment for all it’s instructive power, experiential wonder, and raw everydayness. Maybe, sometimes, that will be enough.