A One Word Wish for 2018: Restraint
Perhaps the most disturbing story I heard in 2017 was the story of Geary Danley. In the hours after the mass shooting in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, the internet was abuzz with people relaying information and weighing in on what happened.
Now that the dust has cleared, we understand that Stephen Paddock cracked the window of the 32nd floor room at the Mandalay Bay hotel at which he was staying, and proceeded to open fire on attendees of the Route 91 Harvest music festival across the street. He had at least 17 guns in his room, and thousands of rounds of ammunition, which he used to ultimately kill 59 people and injure more than 500 more, before ultimately taking his own life.
But in the early hours of Oct 2nd — before even police and the FBI had anything close to complete information — a man named Geary Danley and his family were receiving death threats. Several news outlets and groups of people on Twitter an social media outlets were identifying Danley as the shooter in Las Vegas. He was not even in Las Vegas at the time. His only connection to the shooter was that he was the ex-husband of Marilou Danley — the woman said to be dating Stephen Paddock at the time he opened fire on the crowd in Las Vegas.
Ultimately, the truth came out about what happened in Las Vegas, and Geary Danley’s name slowly left the conversation. But in the hours before it did, he and his family faced a terrible onslaught. And the cause was as pervasive as the supply of weapons used to kill the concert-goers that night in Las Vegas: quick action.
There are times when quick action is called for. In fact, the first responders and security personnel on hand at the Route 91 Harvest Festival that night in Las Vegas needed to take quick action. There were lives at stake — many each second — and taking quick action to get people to safety was essential. But where quick action was detrimental was in acting as if the identity of the perpetrator of the shooting was established, and spreading that information to tens of thousands of people.
Those who read about and spread the name of Geary Danely acted too quickly — and acted when no action was necessary. They fell victim to a symptom of what I believe is the most dangerous and progressive social ill we are seeing today: a lack of restraint.
We have become utterly terrible at restraining ourselves — in an increasing number of arenas.
- We are failing to restrain ourselves in our consumption of food and drink.
More people — as a percentage of the world’s population — are obese now than at any time in history. Diseases related to poor diet are quickly on the rise, and more food is now thrown away than at any other time in history.
- We are failing to restrain ourselves in our consumption of media.
We compulsively check our phones, newsfeeds, the television — for updates, new stimuli. It fragments our attention, and saps our capacity to focus on singular tasks. It keeps us from being fully present and from fully absorbing the moments we’re in. We are forever living in the recent past or the very near future — lingering on notifications gone by or longing for ones yet to come.
- We are failing to restrain ourselves from reacting too quickly.
Not only do we consume the data and information at a breakneck pace, but we then act on it too quickly. Increasingly, this is leading to ill-informed or completely misinformed decisions. Through constant checking of apps and social media, we’re also training our brains to crave the dopamine shot of fresh stimulus — which we get from notifications and news.
- We are failing to restrain ourselves from emotional escalation in reacting to others.
In so many ways, we have amplified each others’ hunger for outrage. It is no longer enough to be slightly taken aback some world news. We must be outraged, we must reject everything — allow no exceptions, admit of no nuance. We are made to feel that we must judge completely and judge quickly — things that are actually totally incompatible.
The Remedy: Restraint
My sincere hope is that 2018 can be a year of restraint. I hope that rather than quick, clumsy, and thoughtless reaction to every stimulus we each experience, we allow some time to pass, collect our thoughts, reflect, and act with some semblance of thoughtfulness. I hope that we do not follow the example of the President of the United States and his staff — who use Twitter as a means to quickly and thoughtlessly shout at the world. In short, I hope that we practice restraint.
Restraint has so many benefits — both at the personal and societal level. When a person restrains themselves, first and foremost, they allow time to pass between stimulus and response — between impulse and action. That space is important because it allows for some natural settling and subsiding to occur. When my 3 year-old daughter purposely disobeys me, and throws her food on the floor, my initial impulse is to yell loudly and bang on the table. But I have learned to take just a second or two before I act, to allow the sharpness of my initial impulse to dull a bit — which it always does. My eventual reaction is more calm and measured — more purposeful, and thus more effective in the long term.
That natural effect of restraint is so important — but so easy to simply forego. But we should not take that easy way out. Simply not acting right away — taking time to literally do nothing before choosing to act — brings tremendous benefit. Psychologist Alison Bonds Shapiro talks about restraint this way:
“Restraint arises naturally in the pause between actions. We breathe in and before we breathe out, there is a pause. Our bodies know how to pause, to stop and wait before taking action. In that pause we have the space to become aware and consider the results of a particular action before we choose to take it. That’s all we need for restraint, the ability to pause and become aware. When we stop and notice, we have the opportunity to experience what it’s like when we are not blinded by greed. We wait. We consider. Then the action we do take is based in a deeper awareness of what is beneficial to us. There is no rush. There is only relaxing into the pause.”
I am under no illusion that this will be easy. In fact, I know that it won’t be. I know that restraint is difficult; but that is not uncommon for habits that have the potential for such lasting benefit. But I can hope.
I can hope that in 2018, we will take a step back, take a deep breath, and just slow our collective roll. I can hope that we will simply not tweet that tweet, not post that screed on Facebook, not give our hot take on the recent whatever-the-news-is.
I can hope that in slowing our roll in the year to come, we can slow the roll of this generation — which has been doing things notoriously quickly. And perhaps, we can slow the roll of the generation succeeding us, and so on. History is already moving quickly enough that we usually can’t focus our eyes on the significance of the present. The more we can take a pause and let things sink in, the better off we will be.
Here’s to a 2018 where even if we do a little bit less, we end up accomplishing more.