The Three Things I Discovered When I Went Back in Time

I’m writing to you from the past. I’ve been here for seven days, living in the technological equivalent of 1993—no email, no text messaging, no mobile phone, no social media, no Netflix. The list goes on and on. 

love

Photo by David Clinton

Before I go back to the future, I want to tell you about the three things I discovered here, and the three people who showed them to me:

a young boy whose guitar was out of tune,

a young woman who fell from six feet up and landed head first on a concrete floor,

and a young girl who ran crying from a stage.

A Young Boy Playing

My son’s first Christmas concert with his group guitar ensemble and I couldn’t record it—in 1993, there wasn’t a video camera in every pocket. So, for the first time in six guitar recitals, I watched him take the stage without an LCD screen separating us. True high definition. I felt more nervous than usual. I hoped it would go perfectly.

It didn’t.

His guitar was out of tune and, in real life and full size, I could actually see the color rising in his cheeks and the furtive glances at his teacher between notes. When you aren’t managing the zoom and focus and preoccupied with trying to keep him in the middle of the screen—when you aren’t controlling something all the time—you are made fully available to the messy moment.

And you feel powerless.

The first thing I discovered in 1993 is the place of powerlessness in us is also the place of love.

Because when you don’t have anything for your hands to reach for, all that’s left is for your heart to reach out. Is it possible love has hands we can’t see? Because in his blushing moment I felt something in me bridge the space between us, something almost tangible holding him up and holding him together, whispering to him “You are beautiful son; you are okay, no matter what notes you play and regardless of who applauds and who doesn’t.”

When we find the place in us that doesn’t always know what to do, we have discovered the center of ourselves, and the center is love.

A Young Woman Falling

She was doing chin-ups on a machine at the gym when her ankles became tangled and she plummeted headfirst to the concrete floor six feet below. The paramedics were called and we all stood around in a circle, staring at her limp and lifeless body. Utterly powerless.

When the paramedics arrived, the crowd scattered. In 2013, I would have joined them. But I was in 1993, so I had no choice but to exist a little longer in the powerless moment.

The second thing I discovered in 1993 is the place of powerlessness in us is also the place of love.

As I watched the scene unfold, I realized this unconscious woman was a symbol for all of us: we’re all busy pulling ourselves up in life, trying to become stronger and more powerful, but all of us are just one tangled ankle away from everything changing. I felt a storm brewing behind my eyes, because when you pay attention long enough you realize:

the stranger is really you,

we’re all fragile, broken, and living lives that turn on a dime,

the world is fully of hierarchies and they’re all a fiction,

life is really just one level playing field and we’re all on it together,

and you realize the powerlessness of love is the only thing with the power to bind us together.

A Young Girl Running

Back at my son’s Christmas concert, the teachers have pulled three harps onto the stage. But one harp stands empty. A murmur of confusion is running through the crowd when the third harpist slowly creeps from the wings. She’s trembling from head to toe as she walks toward the harp and then right past it, running from the stage, tears streaking her face.

A teacher sits in for her and the three harps play their carol.

The urge to reach for my phone is at its peak. Distractions are like a drug in the awkward, helpless, powerless nooks and crannies of life. But with no phone, instead I look around at the faces in the crowd and I can see hearts breaking throughout the auditorium.

The third thing I discovered in 1993 is the place of powerlessness in us is also the place of love.

The song ends and the crowd claps politely, but in the midst of the applause, the young lady re-takes the stage and sits at her harp and it’s clear she’s asking for one more chance and the applause begins to swell and an auditorium full of people hold her up with their clapping hands.

The young girl wipes her slippery hands on her Christmas dress and the trio begins to play. And the many are made one and we all feel like we’re up on that stage with her because deep down in the center of our hearts, we’re all just hoping for one more chance to play the song we hear inside of us.

The Powerless Place

We can’t really go back in time, but we can always go deeper into this time, and we can always go deeper into ourselves.

When we do, I think we discover inside of us a place of utter powerlessness. It can be a painful place, but it is always a beautiful place as well, because it’s where our love is most fierce, unbounded, not limited to family and friends but powerful enough to embrace all of humanity.

Every age has had its distractions—I’m guessing the discovery of fire was like an iPhone for cave men. But every age has also had the opportunity to discover the quiet center beneath the noisy surface of life. And every age has the chance to discover there a secret too good to be true:

The connection and belonging we so deeply desire is already present. We don’t find ways to become connected, we discover we already are connected. Our becoming is really a dawning awareness of that which we already are.

My son’s guitar teacher tuned his guitar between numbers and he nailed his solo in the next song. The young woman awoke on the concrete floor, and by the time she left the gym on a stretcher, she was smiling and talking with the paramedics. And the young girl played her harp beautifully, and when she stood up and bowed, the applauding crowd didn’t feel like three hundred strangers, it felt like a singular humanity.

A powerless humanity. Knit together by a love bigger than any of us.

Question: Did you disconnect in any way this holiday season? I’d love to hear about your experience! You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Note: One brave reader chose to undertake this time travel experiment and to write about it with me. Click here to read what Emily Anton has to say about 1993 and the joy she found there.

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Next Post: On January 8, ”Why One Little Question is the Best Resolution for a New Year”

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Gem

    Thank you for your observation:

    The connection and belonging we so deeply desire is already present. We don’t find ways to become connected, we discover we already are connected.

    Connectivity, with my husband (ironically the human being I should and so badly wish to feel a close bond with) has always been lacking in our relationship, due in part to significantly different values, communication styles and upbringing…
    But then again, perhaps it is my perception of our connection, or the lack thereof, and my pre-occupation with the umpteen tangible distractions that are easier to deal with than working on a mutual emotional need, is robbing us ooth of marital joy???
    Food for thought which I will ponder and positively act upon – thank you Doctor Kelly, for complimenting the care of my personal psychologist and for your perceptive and humorous insights into family life…
    Married eleven years, with three children aged six, four and three years respectively – a subscriber from the beautiful mid-north coast of NSW, AUSTRALIA 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Gem, I hope the new year will bring an even more tangible sense of connection between you and your husband and I’m grateful I can, in some small way, add my voice to the work you’re doing in your life. My best to you and yours, from the other side of the world!

  • Carrie

    I chose to limit my Facebook activity to once a day. It gave time in the mornings to read my bible, pray, and read some OA literature. It was a peaceful start to my day. At other times of the day, when I would normal look at Facebook, I would sometimes play free cell, but didn’t like filling the time that way. Other times I would sit and just breathe or reflect, pick up a book or connect with one of my grown children. I am finding myself less reactive and more at peace. I am going to continue checking my Facebook once a day.

    Thanks, Kelly. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, and your suggestion and example were just what I needed to get me started. I appreciate your observations of powerlessness and love. As I walk this road of healing and growth, I find that connection is what I so long for. To think that it is already present and it is my dawning awareness of what I already am gives me something to ponder.

    I have written to you about friendships. I am learning to see my connection with all of humanity. I connect with those whom I meet each day. I still long for a few close friends, but am grateful to find connection with many. Perhaps as I go about my life this way, one day I will find that the friendships I long for will have sneaked into my life while I wasn’t aware.

    Blessings! And welcome to 2014.

    Carrie

    • drkellyflanagan

      Carrie, it’s great to hear the way you experimented with the idea, and I’m glad you are going to try to persist with it. And my continued encouragement regarding friendships. In my experience, as we begin to be aware of our connection to everyone, we find one or two people who feel the same way and want to share that perspective on life, and they become true, deep friends.

      • Carrie

        Thank you, that sounds hopeful.

  • jennypowell

    Wow! This brought tears to my eyes! Thank you Dr. for this post. I’ve cut back on devices off and on short term but need to consider a long term strategy. I really liked when you pointed out that we are connected now, we just need to fully enter into it. Really enjoyed the Marriage Manifesto also. God’s blessings!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Blessing to you, Jenny; I’m glad you found the blog and the book!

  • Maggie Pinque

    Hi Kelly ~

    Another gorgeous piece.

    I took time off as well – I stopped blogging on 12-21, did a quick Merry Christmas on 12-25 and then went back into it yesterday. I logged onto Facebook to check in with relatives, but otherwise, I was technology free. Nearly every time someone wanted me via phone it was on another floor, on vibrate, charging. I missed a lot of texts.

    We had great family time.

    With that said, we *did* get a subscription to Netflix, and that sir, is a whole ‘nother addiction.

    Here’s to 2014.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, it is, Maggie. Not having Netflix was one of the hardest parts of being on vacation without technology!

  • Sue O

    I didn’t disconnect. In fact, I am working on a blog post at midnight because I can’t sleep. But your thoughts on powerlessness struck a chord in me. 2013 was a hard year for me, mostly because of family things that have happened over which I had no control. It has changed me, not necessarily in a good way. I feel less optimistic about the future, more insecure in my marriage of 34 years and life in general. At the grand age of 57, I feel like this should be a time of more calmness and joy, but it seems to be flowing in the other direction. I have been trying to find a way to turn all of this chaos into something good. Not sure what that is yet, but I am going to find it. I think it has something to do with learning to love unconditionally, which has always been difficult for me. So I guess this post resonates with me on several levels. Thanks for your thoughts. I just started reading your articles and they are making me think in new directions.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sue, I talk to people of all ages and it seems we all think that “by our age,” we should have something more figured out. I’m not sure it ever happens, but I do the people who have your attitude of “I’m going to find it” have a way of redeeming what they’ve gone through. I hope 2014 is a redemptive year for you!

  • gidget

    I deactivated facebook for seven days. I didn’t realize the hold technology had on me until I was free of it. I was able to be present during the small, weird moments. I am back in the social media world, but often find myself wishing I wasn’t. Might deactivate for good.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Gidget, I’ve had a similar ambivalence upon returning. I think the important thing is to be aware of it and honor it. For instance, today we went out for lunch and I instinctively grabbed my cell phone, realized I had no need for it, and left it at home. I hope you can find a happy medium!

  • Gillian Sheldon

    I love your work. I was shocked today when I came across your “Letter to Your Daughter’s Future Husband” on another public speaker’s Facebook page. He had changes some of the words around, but it was easily recognized and I instantly remembered reading it already. His name is Scott Sonon and he should not be gaining any recognition from stealing your work.

  • Karen McElroy

    i had a digital free break that was immersed in books, reading, journalling and deep rest and connection with myself….much needed restoration for my body and soul

  • Sherri Lefler

    Best of intentions! I wasn’t sure how to disconnect from my phone as my only source to connect with my kids and work. So I decided to set boundaries and only use my phone for a phone and email. Then… The miraculous happened. The power went out. Sunday before Chriatmas my family awoke to a powerless house for 6 straight days we ran on a generator for heat and water. But where the electricity ended, the magic started. There is something healing and vibrant when all your efforts focus on daily living and the people you live with. You have to work together and see each other. Christmas morning seemed a little more special as all other energy was turned off so we could have Christmas lights and a hot breakfast!

    • drkellyflanagan

      I couldn’t agree more, Sherri! During power outages we’ve re-discovered candlelight and board games and we’re always a little disappointed when it comes back on!

  • Caitlin

    This was beautiful!! The examples of powerlessness and love resonated in me, the final one bringing bittersweet tears to my eyes. How perfectly wonderful a singular humanity united by love is.

    I went out to the country for a week where I had poor reception and ended up running out of credit too… so I became disconnected with some things that were going on back in my hometown… and loved it. It probably allowed me to connect more fully with reality, with the opportunity I had been blessed with, to enjoy the country and the people I was with instead of coming up with pointless statuses, scrolling aimlessly through Facebook or worrying about things which I enjoyed leaving behind for a time. Sometimes, in order to connect, we need to disconnect and become a singular humanity.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Caitlin, my daughter’s name is spelled the same way. : ) Thank you for sharing your story!

  • ElleReith

    Hi, I’m Michelle, and recently I stumbled on your blog, by kind of an accident caused my endless curiosity. So, I was kind of wondering did you ever thought this way, I mean like we all have stages in our lives in which we just don’t seem to see the picture in the finest way. Anyways, I was just curious (again) by what drive you into thinking with such deep insight, was there a moment that made you change the perception of your life, was it having kids? or getting married or just bieng alive.
    Sorry if am asking like a deep personal question. I would totally undestand if you decide not to answer. Sorry again, and what you write is utterly mind blowing, its like sipping into a great cup of chai tea for the first time, it’s tender, warm, and like it brings you comfort. Thanks for just writing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Michelle, You are too kind, thank you for your encouraging words. My response would be, “Yes!” All of the above. I think every stage of life can promote growth if we will allow it. Ironically, this next week’s post will be about acknowledging our immaturity as a pathway to growth! Also, I think the key to growth is reading the authors who think and write the way you want to think and write. : )

  • No more video!

    I completely agree with your sentiment about experiencing events in real time. I have videos of my kids that start out in perfectly in focus and trained on them. The image slowly dips, then dips further, until it shows the back of the head of the audience member in front of me, then the chair, then perhaps my knees or the floor. Absorbed in the music, the dance, or whatever pleasure my children were giving, I completely forgot about preserving it. While I may not have a video of the actual event, and may not remember what piece was played, or what the costumes were, I have clear memories of my feelings! The fear, the pride, the joy, the amazement. I would not have experienced those feelings had I been fooling around with the video camera!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, so many videos like that! Someday they’ll understand they are not in the frame because we loved them too much to watch them from a distance. : )

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