Last week, your granddad brought over an old photo album from my high school years to share. We all laughed at my 80s clothes and half-mullet hairstyle, and you three marveled at pictures of me with girlfriends who predate your mother. You seemed to enjoy imagining a world where I was so different from how I am now, and especially from how I am as your father.
For my part, I felt an unanticipated strangeness in that difference–a distance from my own history that suddenly became stark when I realized that, in many cases, I now remember the pictures in that album more clearly than I remember the events they were meant to capture.
Even the pictures of my prom night don’t spur much sense of connection for me now. I can recount a version of that night’s events, of course: there was a fancy steak dinner, a limo ride, a dance, and an after-party, all with a girl I once cared for deeply. But unlike other memories–including ones I’ve blogged about here–this one feels distant and disconnected.
The same is true for most of the pictures in that old album. And probably for most of the pictures in all of the other albums, both physical and virtual, that I’ve collected over the years.
At the same time, I still feel deeply connected to a different set of memories from high school–memories for which I have no pictures. Among them:
- When I first went to visit your uncle Tim at college, I remember him telling his friends that I was better than him at music–which made me feel both cool and accepted, even though I was still just a high school boy.
- When I was going through a tough breakup during my senior year, I remember my calculus teacher letting me hide out in her classroom when I was supposed to be at lunch–bending school rules to give me a needed break, even though she and I weren’t particularly close
- When my English teacher (with whom I was close) gave me a B instead of an A on my report card, I remember her seeking me out in the hallway and apologizing to me. Not that I deserved it: I was completely responsible for the grade, since I’d failed to complete an important assignment, but she cared enough about me to talk me through it nonetheless.
I could go on, listing memories that still feel alive to me even though I have no pictures of them. It’s actually quite fun to think about them, because one thing these memories tend to have in common is kindness. I remember times when people were kind to me, especially when I didn’t expect or necessarily deserve it.
And that’s worth remembering in an era that seems ever-more fascinated with capturing events in a perpetual flow of pictures. Most of those pictures will hollow out in time, as the events they depict recede in importance. But the kindnesses we do for each other will tend to live on in memory–long after Instagram has gone the way of the mullet.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to tell you to put down your phones and stop taking selfies. As you know, I like my phone and selfies, too. But next time any of us is tempted to take a picture, we might stop and ask whether it would be better to say or do something nice instead. A picture, so they say, is worth a thousand words. But neither is worth much if they don’t serve to connect us.