My college student Joe described the good life as one in which he could take the time to reflect rather than just to react to one emotion, event, and situation after another. Never has this penchant for knee-jerk reaction been easier than in the many technological opportunities for instant and faceless communication. Twitter, text, and email tempt us to act with no thought of consequence. It's just a screen, the "keyboardist" is solitary; no voices exchange words in dialogue. Where is the validity in these often one-way "conversations"? Emotional words hit inboxes with a thud; the sender turns away, satisfied, while the recipient deals with the remains.
I watch over and over and over as falling for this false sense of security backfires on impetuous students, fatigued teachers, overwrought employers, and troubled family members. Words that would never, ever be written by hand come fast and furious; a handwritten note takes time and thought and allows for at least some deliberation as it is folded and sealed. Anger that would appear foolish and misplaced if displayed in person vents itself in cyberspace. Postings on social networking sites come back to haunt and hurt. Virtual reality becomes all-too-real, and what felt almost anonymous bears an actual name.
What might Aristotle suggest? This ancient Greek philosopher adamantly proclaims the power of habit in our lives. We are responsible for our actions, though "neither are we praised or blamed for the way we feel" (Nichomachean Ethics). It is how we choose to act, or not, on our feelings that makes all the difference. As we repeat acts of courage or cowardice, generosity or stinginess, anger or self-control, we develop stronger and stronger tendencies or "dispositions" to repeat specific behaviors. "It is our actions that determine our dispositions...and people's characters take their bias from the steady direction of their activities." Aristotle holds us completely responsible for the tendencies we develop. We can think; we can deliberate between alternatives. We can train ourselves to take new caution with that "send" button; more frequently, we can select the "pause" key instead.
We create our tendencies to act in certain ways, and even in a crisis, we respond in "the habitual way." If we make reflection an increasingly more natural response whenever emotion flares, emails may well be discarded in the light of a new day. Conscious thought will precede text messages. Aristotle's warnings about the hold of habit on our lives comes to mind as I hear a colleague lament an email response that he sent in the heat of the moment... years ago. A talented lawyer abruptly retires when her clandestine efforts at deleting a client's networking posts suddenly swirl through the media and courthouse. An angry student's late night email results in his being withdrawn from all classes.
Aristotle reminds Joe and all of us that we control our responses to emotion. Like the attention given to pruning a bonsai or weaving morning glories up a trellis, we are the directors of our lives, cultivating dispositions that will take us on clearly defined paths. Online and wired, offline and unhooked, we can carve out tendencies that are constructive and thoughtful, and willingly own the results.