Without a sign of problems, my phone captured moments for me. Quickly shot photographs of students, friends, meals together, celebrations in the community– if I did not want something to slip through my fingers, I saved it on a memory card.
Until the day it happened.
During Young Leaders’ last class of the semester, the camera application that had been opened to record a group photo– inexplicably– showed only a blank screen.
However, when I pressed the “selfie” button, an awkward reflection of my crinkled forehead, squinted look, and exaggerated chin emerged. I’m not campaigning against selfie-taking, but I’m also not of the generation that is good at them. My eyes dart to the wrong place, uncertain of their focus. Moments that I intend to keep crisp and clear in memory translate into images that are distorted and fuzzy.
The quick fix, according to internet rumors, can be easily accomplished at an Apple store… The nearest of these is two countries away. So for the last few months, my camera has only operated in selfie mode.
Recorded or not, the moments parade by. I drink tea at the beach with a young coworker, his new fiancé, and their families. The five-year-old sister learned somewhere to roll her eyes back, stretch her mouth into a tall “O,” and call herself a zombie, whenever a photograph is being taken.
Her mother scolds, “Your face will get stuck like that!” But she still does the look during our sunset selfies at the beach… and weeks later, during formal shots at her big brother’s engagement party.
I use an old camera during Young Leaders Winter Camps. What makes a good leader? we ask them.
“A good leader helps the team,” the first student answers. They learn about setting an example and inspiring change, and watch clips of Martin Luther King, Jr. They learn about listening, and walk in silence around a bird observatory; if they speak too much, the moment passes, the birds fly to a safe zone. They learn about perseverance and overcoming challenges, piecing together puzzles, giving speeches in English, and participating in their first team game of paintball.
Guess which of these is their favorite.
But I grow weary, attempting to be fully present in these moments, while capturing them with broken tools. A few times– also inexplicably– my phone camera works normally, including twice out of two dozen times I attempted to use it on a recent trip to a neighboring country. I take photos out of car windows and in airports, desperately recording things I would not have bothered with if I could have counted on the lens to work always.
While my camera is limited in its view, I miss many images: shots of new friends, new foods, tender sunsets and triumphs of ancient artists and architects. But I also learn to approach things from a new angle.
Set the camera up, and then step aside.
Or, even more efficient, point the lens toward the sky.
Some of the most splendid details in these places are only seen when the neck is craned back, eyes lifted to the ceiling.
“Fireworks,” twenty-year-old Yakub told me. “That’s what I thought it was, when I heard the first round of bombs go off in the city where I grew up. I was happy about it. I was just a kid, and I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset.”
A friend introduced me to Yakub on my first day in this neighboring country– a place with a rich heritage of musicians and poets, but also a destructive legacy of war and the massacre of minorities. He learned English from X-box games that connected people through the internet. Yakub’s stories of multiple displacements to different countries, bombings witnessed as a child, and infamous neighbors from his town were delivered with humor and casualness.
But his stories of separation from family, homelessness, and interrupted high school dreams were cropped out of his conversation, to be filled in later by my friend.
The next day, I traveled outside of the city to a hotel, where a group was meeting for a retreat and had asked me to lend some music. Arriving a little before the rest, I went into the meeting room and strapped on the guitar, looking at the green hills that stretched past the picture window.
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord.
My voice was catching. To sing about God’s goodness and His glory, in a land that has experienced genocide and destruction, created a tension in me. Tension between the knowledge that His presence has been there through the region’s long history, and the grief that many haven’t yet experienced that presence.
Between the good news that many, like Yakub, are tasting real life, and the sadness that they have felt death bitterly.
Between the green beauty of the mountains, and the knowledge that many fled to them to try to save themselves from guns and gases.
Between the sweetness of singing in this place, where many have sung before, and the knowledge that so many, many have not experienced the reason for our songs.
I want to see healing come to the people of this nation, wholly and with finality. I want similarly conclusive results in my own life. Because I know that brokenness can cause us to miss moments. It can cause us to be in selfie mode in our pain— eyes uncertain where to look, our own image crowding the frame. Distorted perceiving of the way things really are, and lower resolution, resulting in less clarity of vision.
Overeager attempts to find something which we can hold. A job, a relationship, a celebration, any lovely thing that we don’t think will always be there. We grasp at the grand and the mundane, hoping to capture at least a reflection of them so that we still have something nearby when darkness falls.
But perhaps it isn’t resolution, but tension, that beckons me to step out of the way, and to look up. Perhaps, even in the darkness, my neck should be craning skyward.
Maybe brokenness invites me to see things from a different perspective.
And maybe it is less about capture, and more about release.