As I sat down to write this, I found myself looking down. Looking down at pugs dressed like pumpkins, at a Clarendon-filtered selfie of a girl I haven’t talked to since 8th grade, at one of my best friends swimming in hot springs in Iceland, and at a random girl’s sixpack with the hashtag #mondaymotivation. The thoughts enter with each refreshing of my feed:

“I wish…”

“I should be…”

“Why can’t I…”

“I’ll never…”

The longer I look, the more my thoughts become a scrambled mess of jealousy and insecurity, disguised as admiration and inspiration. The sinking feeling in my stomach that I’m not good enough, or that my life will never be as cool or as fun as the people in these photos. And when I’m not comparing myself, I am mindlessly looking down at my email, texts, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, Fitbit, Vine, Youtube, Chase Account, Pinterest, Buzzfeed, and Google results of the hometown, alma mater, and allergies of the latest Bachelor contestant.

None of these apps are evil or wrong within themselves. I’m extremely grateful for the way that I’ve been able to stay in touch with friends and family all over the world through these platforms, or how quickly I am able to gain information. But when we use these apps to numb, compare, or disconnect, this is when we need to ask ourselves some questions.

Lately, I have gotten into asking myself a simple question every time I have the urge to refresh my feed for the 20th time that hour:

“If I look down right now, what will I miss?”

And then I look around me. I notice the way that the sunlight hits the trees, and how it finally is beginning to feel like fall. I notice my husband’s hand in mine, and hear him making himself laugh at his own joke. I notice the people walking past me, and wonder about their stories. I notice my niece smiling up at me, asking me to play “What Time is it Mr. Fox?”. I notice my friends, and the joy that I feel laughing with them. I notice the cashier at Target scanning my items, and say thank you. I notice the overwhelming love I feel when snuggling with my newborn nephew. I notice my family around the dinner table, grateful for the time together. I notice myself: breathing, living, growing, learning, grieving, loving, stressing, celebrating, feeling, present, real.

As a therapist, I sit across from my clients for 50 minutes with no phones between us. I’ve realized how rare it is to be with another person for not even an hour with no distractions. Just human beings, fully present with one another. This type of presence has allowed me to walk alongside others in their deepest pain, and their deepest joys. This presence allows me to fully enter their living and breathing stories, not their filtered, edited, two-dimensional, on-screen stories. Here’s what I would miss if I were to look down in these moments:  

The courage of a 20 year old, sharing for the first time about the trauma she survived

A mother’s eyes welling up, realizing her comparison and need for perfection is suffocating

A husband gently reaching for his wife’s hand, wanting to fight for their marriage

The downward gaze of a 55 year old, facing the consequences of his addiction

The raw pain of a 13 year old, mourning his parent’s divorce

The triumphant grin of a 17 year old, announcing her college acceptance, when no one thought she would even graduate high school

These stories are messy, and real. As are we. When we allow ourselves to be fully present, we open ourselves up to the messy, vulnerable, raw emotions and experiences of ourselves and others. When we choose the real-life moments that are happening all around us instead of looking down to numb, avoid, distance, and withdraw, we experience life in all of its glorious and heart-wrenching fullness. It can be easier to look down, it might even feel safer to look down. But I ask you the same question:

What have you missed while looking down?

For you, it might be your daughter dancing in the kitchen. Your co-worker over-sharing about her love life. Your lonely neighbor that always turns a 30 second conversation into a 30 minute one. The peace that fills you when you stand by the ocean. The chaos when all three kids are home from school and you’re trying to get dinner ready. The leaves changing. The stressful commute. Laughing with your spouse. Hugging your son on his way out the door. The normalcy of waiting at a stoplight. Your laundry hamper overflowing. Asking your roommate how their day was, and listening to the response. Walking through your neighborhood and hearing the laughter, the cries, the silence, the life, breathing in and out at that very moment.

It can be terrifying to look up. But I find it even more terrifying to think that I could look back at my life, and only see my head looking down. Choose to look up. Look up into real-life pain, joy, stress, grief, celebration, anger, fear, love, and dive in head-first. Look up by leaving your phone in the car during your son’s baseball game. Turn off your phone on date night. Go on a run with nothing strapped to your wrist or arm. Keep your phone in the backseat. Set an alarm on a real-life alarm clock so that your phone is not the first sight you see when you open your eyes, or the last sight you see when falling asleep. Choose to be present in your own story, and the stories happening around you.

Look up, and you might just be surprised by what you don’t miss.

Lauren Neely, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern